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.


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