Zoo Excursions

August 29, 2008

I’m calling this week my week of zoo excursions. I had two really cool opportunities to learn about different aspects of the zoo community. Of course I also spent time at meetings and researching and writing elements for ZooGoer, but I wont tell you about that because it is not nearly as exciting or informative as my excursions – not to mention the fact that I can’t discuss the content of those pieces.

Dama gazelles

My first adventure was a trip up to the vet hospital to meet with the Zoo’s cryobiologist and talk with him about all of his different research projects and take a tour of the labs and the gamete bank. My supervisor and I were hoping to generate a list of possible feature ideas for the magazine as well as simply find out what the Zoo scientists were involved in and studying.

In the hour and a half that we were there we gathered more ideas than could possibly fit in ZooGoer in a year. Not only did he explain the numerous projects that he is personally involved in, but he also spoke about the research of his colleagues. He told us that there are certain priority species for the Zoo – species that are in danger of extinction or that don’t have enough genetic diversity in their breeding populations. Two such species are the dama gazelles and the Grevy’s zebras.

Grevy’s zebra

I think the zebras are particularly interesting because the Zoo is responsible for maintaining a bachelor herd as part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP). What that means is that we have enough space for several zebras at once and we serve as a sort of holding ground for young males until they reach reproductive maturity and are sent to another zoo to breed.

A little fun fact, not related to the SSP or conservation, is that each zebra has unique striping just as humans have unique fingerprints. (If you stare at the zebras long enough in an attempt to discern their individual striping, you will get dizzy).

We were also able to see the gamete bank that contains samples from several different species and learn about how the samples were kept viable for years at a time in special freezers. While we were touring the laboratory spaces we even got a chance to view African elephant semen under a microscope – so cool! Now how many people can say they’ve done that?

My second interesting learning experience wasn’t an excursion per se, but a talk given by a world-famous animal trainer that was open to all Zoo staff. The presentation lasted for two hours and I did not look at my watch once. He was so engaging and the topic of his talk was really interesting.

Photo by JESSIE COHEN/National Zoo Photographer
Scarlet macaws

While he has worked with birds, specifically parrots, most often in his storied career, our presenter has also had the opportunity to travel all over the world creating training programs for many different species including lions, giant anteaters, several species of monkeys, etc.

He talked about building relationships with the animals and using positive reinforcement rather than punishment to train them. He stressed the importance of letting the animal know that he or she was an equal to the trainer, not a subordinate. When an animal knows that they can escape or quit the training session at any time they are much more comfortable and willing to work with the keepers, he said.

He gave a great presentation with lots of video clips and pictures to support all of his points. He also had awesome anecdotes about training lionesses to stand for an injection and chimps to enter a chute and birds to stand still on a scale.


This week I got to do another interview for Metro Talk on 3WT radio. Just like last month, I was able to pick the topic and the interviewee as well as write my own questions.

Asian elephant – Ambika

For this interview I chose to cover the Zoo’s commissary and talk with a senior animal nutritionist. In preparation, I worked with FONZ’s media relations manager to gather all of the factsheets and talking points about the commissary that had been compiled for previous interviews, press releases and media events. I quickly saw that there were hundreds of fun facts about animal nutrition and the jobs of the people who work in the commissary. It was really cool to be able to approach the interview as an outsider or a Zoo visitor. Because I was given complete control over the direction of the questions, I was basically able to ask about the things that I was interested in or curious about.

The nutritionist told me about creating diets specific to each individual animal. He detailed all the work that goes into preparing for Zoo events such as Celebrate Asian Elephants which takes place this weekend and includes a birthday celebration for Ambika, the oldest of the Zoo’s Asian elephants. He also talked about the fact that the Zoo grows all of its own hay and bamboo at several different sites in Washington and Virginia. I also learned about the huge quantities of food that are needed each year to feed the approximately 2,000 animals living at the Zoo. Can you even imagine 6,000 pounds of bananas and 20,000 pounds of fish?

The interview airs on Metro Talk on Sunday morning at 11-o-clock. Check it out on 107.7 FM.

Ring-tailed lemurs

In addition to the radio interview, several other small, on-going writing projects and some continued photo research we also had things to work on with the calendar – still!

We were able to copyedit the text and get all of the dates, events, etc. okayed by Monday at which point we sent all of the changes to the designer who input them and then sent everything to the printers. We received proofs from the printers on Thursday and we immediately met with the photographers to make sure the colors were correct and everything looked good. Unfortunately, there is going to be another round of proofs next week since a few of the photographs were over-saturated or had other color issues. But then, once those have been corrected, it will finally be ready to mail to members!

At this point I have visited every single animal at the Zoo – at least once. Some of the trips that I have not shared are ones to see the ring-tailed lemurs and the spectacled bear, Nikki.

The lemurs have one of the coolest exhibit yards at the Zoo. They live on Lemur Island which also contains a large waterfall and is home to at least 100 turtles. The lemurs hang out behind the waterfall in wooden huts interspersed with trees. I wouldn’t mind having a lemur hut to lounge around in in my backyard.

Spectacled bear – Nikki

The spectacled bear is located all the way at the bottom of the hill just before Amazonia. Because of this, I rarely ventured down there as a Zoo visitor before I became an intern. I already talked about all of the cool stuff that I missed out on in Amazonia, but I didn’t mentioned Nikki. He’s a pretty cool guy. When I stopped by he was enjoying a frozen treat on a very hot afternoon. The spectacled bears look to me like they accidentally bleached their fur around their faces. They are all black or dark brown except right around their eyes and nose where they are a much lighter shade of brown – even blonde in some cases. I wonder what the benefit of their coloring is, evolutionarily speaking?

Science is cool

August 18, 2008

This week I had the opportunity to travel down to Front Royal Virginia to the Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center. I spent the day listening to presentations from scientists, zookeepers, postdocs, graduate students and interns about the projects and research that they are doing at the Zoo. It was really cool to hear about the amazing studies that people have come up with and the information that they are finding.


There were studies from specific behaviors of one particular animal to studies on conservation efforts for an entire region of the world. There were even two presentations that dealt with cognition in animals. One of these presentations explained research that is currently taking place with the orangutans in the Think Tank exhibit. The researcher’s previous study can be seen in video form in Think Tank and so I was already familiar with the project and the objectives. However, the scientist is taking the next step and hoping to further our information about orangutan thinking. Not only are orangutans really cool, but they are pretty smart too. And it seems they will do everything in their power to make sure that they choose the study condition that will garauntee them grapes.

African lion – Luke

Another study that really piqued my interest was one that incorporates several zoos throughout the country and looks at the reproductive status of African lions. Because the captive African lion population has not recently had the breeding success that it had previously known and because there is not much information available about African lion reproduction, the main objective of this project is to obtain baseline reproductive data to hopefully determine the reasons for the decline in successful breeding. This is interesting in and of itself, but as a cat lover it was particularly fascinating for me.

There was so much information to take in and those were just two of the fifteen presentations – not to mention the poster session during lunch to explain other scientific projects taking place at the Zoo and at CRC!

Of course I also spent time on editorial work this week. There was yet another round of calendar edits to input and then the draft had to be circulated one more time. There was also ‘animal facts’ writing to finish and some research to complete for a feature and sidebar for the upcoming November/December issue of ZooGoer.

Collared peccary

And I can’t finish without talking about an animal visit. I found an animal that I had never heard of before – the collared peccary. I’d never seen them out in their yard before so I was surprised to come across them when walking behind the Small Mammal House. I guess I just assumed the yard was for another species of monkey or rodent.

Even though they look similar to hogs, peccaries are not pigs. They are classified in a family of their own because of anatomical differences. I happen to think they are extremely cute in a not-really-cute-but-underappreciated-and-that-makes-them-cute kind of way.

Harry Potter at the Zoo

August 8, 2008

Every single day I walk past the Cheetah Conservation Station to get to and from the parking lot. Usually I’m in a hurry so I don’t stop and visit with the animals. And they tend to nap along the back wall where it’s hard to see them anyway. But this week, the cheetahs have been really active, or at least more visible, every time I’ve gone by.

Male cheetahs

They are such amazing creatures – built for speed and so lean. I never thought polka dots were a good form of camouflage,  but I was wrong. Those napping cheetahs blend right into the dirt and grass in their enclosure. Their looks are deceptive too. They seem to me to be big house cats and I always have the urge to pet them when I see them lounging around flicking their tails back and forth. It’s hard to remember that they are wild animals.

One of my favorite things about the cheetahs is their names. The three brothers are all named after Harry Potter characters – Draco, Granger, and Zabini. I just love the Harry Potter books and next to pandas, cats of all sorts have always been my favorite animals. (Until I got to the Zoo and met the giant anteaters and the elephant shrews, etc. at which point my list was greatly expanded though it did not cause me to bump any of my previous favorites off the list.) The female cheetah also has a beautiful name – Amani – that I really like even if it isn’t from a great novel.

Female cheetah – Amani

As for ZooGoer this week we continued to push ahead with the calendar. I’m amazed at just how long things like this take to complete. It seems to me that it should be a relatively quick process of choosing photos and then plugging them in to a design. But there are so many people who need to give input on the photo selection,  OK the animal facts we’ve included in the captions, OK the dates we’ve listed as Zoo events, double-check the masthead to make sure the membership information is correct, send us advertisements that have to be included in the calendar, etc.

Then once it’s gone through several other people and been copy edited as well, we still have to agree on a design. There are all these minute details that I never thought of when it comes to putting a calendar together. Do you include the previous and the latter month in small form on each page? Do you include the scientific names of the animals? And, if so, where? in the caption? alongside the photo itself?

Despite all this, I’m fairly certain that we are ready to move ahead and send the calendar to the printers next week. Whew.

Not surprisingly this week at FONZ was filled with more calendar preparations. We had to circulate the draft we had created of all of the holidays and Zoo events to all of the necessary departments to double-check that everything was correct. This inevitably led to a few changes that needed to be made. We also had to complete the process of selecting/getting everyone to agree on the twelve main photos that would be featured.

Young prehensile-tailed porcupine with its mother

Other than the calendar I also spent some time working on my book review for the upcoming issue of ZooGoer. I’m finding it difficult to write even though I loved the book. I think the problem that I’m having stems from the fact that the book is basically a compilation of essays and not one continuous story. I’m hoping to have it completed by early next week, though.

On Thursday I spent awhile looking through other zoo’s publications just to get a taste for what they all looked like and what kinds of content they included. We’re trying to gather as much information as possible as we move forward with the re-design of ZooGoer. There were a couple of things that we really liked – section headings and the design of some departments such as “creature features,” but there were a bunch of things that we didn’t like – super busy designs, not enough white space on the pages, and too many advertisements. It was really informative to compare our publications to similar ones so that we can make decisions about the new look of our magazine.

Golden lion tamarin

I also had the opportunity to meet with one of the possible designers for our new publication. It’s cool to get to see a selection of the projects that someone has worked on in their career, but it makes it hard to compare designers because they have all done such different things. It would be easier if we could give everyone an article and ask them to show us how they would present it in our magazine.

Lastly, I spent a large chunk of time doing photo research for the November/December issue of ZooGoer. Some of the animals that we needed were fairly common and since we were looking for straightforward pictures just so readers can visualize what the animal looks like, there was lots to choose from. But, this was not true of all of the pictures. Because I wrote specifically about giraffe tails, I was looking for a picture of a giraffe taken from the back and this proved to be a very unpopular angle. We also needed some very specific species of animals that don’t appear to be particularly photogenic as there are very few pictures of them available.


For our animal visit this week my supervisor and I decided to stop back at the Small Mammal House. There was a baby prehensile-tailed porcupine born in June and when these animals are born they have fluffy, red fur instead of black and white quills like their parents. As the juvenile porcupine ages, its fur stiffens and changes color so that it resembles its parents. We have been going back every other week or so to check on the progress of the baby. On this visit, we could tell that its fur had definitely lost its fuzzy-quality and has become more stiff and quill-like and it is changing colors – mostly from red to white. There’s not much black yet.

We also visited the golden lion tamarins, who are always entertaining as they jump from branch to branch in their exhibits. Their fur is so cool – when the sun catches it just right it shines this amazingly vibrant gold color. Plus they look like they have long mustaches and they make funny faces.

Prevost’s squirrel

We also saw degus which I think are one of the cutest animals in the Small Mammal House. They almost look like tiny rabbits. At first I didn’t see very many of them in the exhibit, but the longer I stood there, the more I found. I counted at least eight burrowing around and looking for food.

Lastly, we saw the Prevost’s squirrel. He was lounging in his usual spot – on a branch at the very top of his exhibit. Every single time I have been into the Small Mammal House he has been in that exact same position.  Of all the squirrel species I have seen in person, I think these guys are the coolest. They have at least three different colors on them in a really cool stripe pattern.