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Celebrating 40 Years of Graduates from the Zoo Academy

If you follow the Zoo blog, you’ve likely read posts written by some of current Zoo Academy students and are somewhat familiar with the program. This year, we are celebrating a milestone as the 40th class of Zoo Academy graduates prepares to walk across the Cintas Center stage and receive their diplomas on May 24.

The Cincinnati Zoo Academy has been a part of the public school system in Cincinnati since 1975. In 1995, the program underwent a substantial change from a strictly vocational program with an emphasis on natural resources and wildlife management to a four year college preparatory program where the students earn vocational degrees by working with zookeepers for two hours a day. During the 2008 – 2009 school year, we became a Tech Prep program with articulation agreements with UC Blue Ash and Cincinnati State. Students spend their ninth and tenth grade years at Hughes High School. During their eleventh and twelfth grade years, home base for the Zoo Academy is located on the first floor of the Education Center on Zoo grounds. The students spend several hours a day working alongside keepers, educators and other staff in labs throughout the Zoo.

Soon to graduate, Zoo Academy student Dominick Stowers (right) works with the Africa keepers and an ostrich.

Soon to graduate, Zoo Academy student Dominick Stowers (right) works with the Africa keepers and an ostrich.

Soon to graduate, Monneka Johnson socializes Bonnie, a screaming hairy armadillo, during her Education lab. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

Soon to graduate, Monneka Johnson socializes Bonnie, a screaming hairy armadillo, during her Education lab. (Photo: Shasta Bray)

This year’s graduates follow in the footsteps of an esteemed group of alumni. Many graduates have gone on to establish careers in environmental or zoological fields and some have actually been hired on as staff here at the Zoo, including Rickey Kinley, who has worked at the Zoo for 22 years and is currently a keeper in the aviculture department. Here Rickey shares his story in his own words:

“I started my life as an underprivileged kid. We were very poor.  I can remember being fascinated by nature and animals as far back as when I was three years old watching a ladybug on my window sill. At about the third grade, I had the epiphany that books held the information about the animals that I was so interested in. I became a bookworm, but only with books about animals. This curiosity developed further on to my teenage years when a freshman year science teacher mentioned to me about a high school called the Zoo School. As a teenager, this school seemed too good to be true. I applied, was accepted, and started school at the beginning of my junior year.

It was quite amazing to see on a daily basis all of the Cincinnati Zoo All-stars:  Cathryn Hilker (founder of Cat Ambassador Program), Mike Dulaney (current Curator of Mammals), Milan Busching (former insect keeper), and of course, Thane Maynard (current Zoo Director). These were people that I had regularly seen and idolized on the TV show “Zoo Zoo Zoo.”  Every single day I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure that it was a real high school.

Like every teenager, I was never quite sure what, when, or where life would take me or what decisions I should be making. The Zoo School gave me focus, direction, and mentoring. My very first lab rotation was in Wildlife Canyon with folks like Randy Pairan (current keeper) who taught me about the babirusa named Oscar that was more like a dog than a pig. During the Cat House lab, I was allowed to ride in the vet van next to an anesthetized lion on the way to the vet hospital for a root canal.

Rickey Kinley as a Zoo Academy student assisting with a procedure on a lion.

Rickey Kinley as a Zoo Academy student assisting with a procedure on a lion.

In the Bird House, Casey Nastold (former keeper) taught me how to hand-feed a variety of parrots, including baby macaws, eclectus parrots, African grey parrots, cockatoos, and the list goes on. Way back in 1992, the Bird House used to remove the eggshells from each egg before we smashed them for diets. I mentioned to Casey one day how in one of my books I read that many bird breeders smash the eggs with the shell on to provide grit and calcium for the birds. Casey decided that it made sense, the change was made and that is how we do our eggs still to this day. Looking back it still amazes me that she, in her managerial position, listened to the idea of a teenager.  It was extraordinary that she judged the concept on the merit of the idea and not from whose mouth it came.

Today, Rickey works in aviculture with birds, including the rhinoceros hornbill.

Today, Rickey works in aviculture with birds, including the rhinoceros hornbill.

I met Mary Abbott (current keeper) during my rotation in the Children’s Zoo.  In this department lived a turkey vulture named Greta that only liked Mary. Actually, she only liked women.  Any woman could pick this bird up like a baby, but men were never treated so kindly. Even though Greta was partial to women in general, I could tell that this vulture was a great judge of character because Mary was one of the nicest people I met as a student.

I want to help others understand how great of an impact that a program like this can have on a person.  Two things seemed impossible to me as a youngster with few opportunities:  1) to one day become a zookeeper and 2) to own my own business.  I have now been at the Zoo for 22 years and I have been a business owner for 13 years.”

Rickey shares his knowledge as a bird keeper with participants in the Zoo's Spring Break Camp.

Rickey shares his knowledge as a bird keeper with participants in the Zoo’s Spring Break Camp.

Learn more about the Zoo Academy and hear inspiring stories from other graduates here.

 

May 22, 2015   1 Comment

Baby Gorilla Mondika – Keeper Update

Asha plays airplane with baby Mondika

Asha plays airplane with baby Mondika (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Mondika is turning one in August, and she continues to do wonderfully within her family group! It is extremely important for a young gorilla to grow up in their family group to learn how to be a gorilla. As she is growing more aware, she is learning the social dynamic of her family by hearing vocalizations, seeing interactions between members and even by smelling different smells. Asha is her primary teacher and has been a wonderful mother, being very attentive and protective of Mondika (Mona). Asha enjoys grooming and playing with Mona and lately is allowing Mona to become more independent by venturing off some, but not out of reach at this point.

Mondika's Dad, Jomo, is usually close by.

Mondika’s Dad, Jomo, is usually close by. Photo by Jeff McCurry

Mona is also very interested in learning from other members within her family like her father, Jomo. Jomo is not only an excellent silverback, he is also a wonderful dad. Mona is Jomo’s second child and continues to prove himself. He is reserved, respectful and gentle with Asha and Mona. Mona is very interested in him and has been seen on several occasions touching, climbing and smelling him. Jomo sits very still and enjoys every minute. As Mona grows more playful and independent she will most likely spend more time with Jomo.

Asha & Mondika (Mona) - Photo by Jeff McCurry

Asha & Mondika (Mona) – Photo by Jeff McCurry

Physically she is also progressing well as a young gorilla. She is still small as gorillas grow slowly like humans do. They are considered babies until they are three years old. Therefore, she spends most of her time on mom, but every day she is growing more independent. As a result, she has learned to knuckle walk and climb and enjoys hanging upside down. She has also developed a white dot on her rear end that all gorilla babies do. They are not born with this white dot and it does disappears as they get older. This dot allows their mom to see them more easily in the dense dark forests in the wild as they start to venture off.

The white dot on Mona's rear. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

The white dot on Mona’s rear. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Mona is curious and aware of her surroundings and food. She now has enough teeth to explore foods that mom eats. She has a sweet tooth, like most primates, and enjoys bananas and grapes the most. However, she still nurses frequently and her mothers milk is her main source of nutrition at this age. Mona will continue to become more adventurous and playful, and her personality will become even more apparent as she continues to grow within her family group. As keepers we are excited to see her develop socially and physically.

 

May 20, 2015   3 Comments

What Do Lion Cubs Like to Do Best? Play!

Just like human children, life for a lion cub is all about play, and our 6-month-old lion cubs – Willa, Uma and Kya – love to play!

Willa, Kya and Uma at play (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Willa, Kya and Uma at play (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

So much more than just a fun way to pass the time, play also helps little lions develop and grow. By running, climbing and wrestling, they practice their gross motor skills and develop physical strength and coordination.

"I'm Queen of the World!" (Photo: DJJAM)

“I’m Queen of the World!” (Photo: DJJAM)

"Oh, no you don't!" (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

“Oh, no you don’t!” (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Play is also enriching for their minds. Mental stimulation triggered by playing with each other and a variety of toys, which could be anything from a ball to a stick to Daddy’s mane, builds big, clever brains.

"I got it!" (Photo: Mark Dumont)

“I got it!” (Photo: Mark Dumont)

"Ouch!" (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

“Ouch!” (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Social play like chasing, roughhousing and playing keep-away with each other is important for bonding. The pride that plays together, stays together!

"I'm going to get you!" (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

“I’m going to get you!” (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

Even Imani gets in on the fun! (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Even Imani gets in on the fun! (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Play also helps our budding predators practice and hone their stalking and hunting skills.

"Hey! That's my tail!" (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

“Hey! That’s my tail!” (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

"Pretend to be a buffalo, Dad" (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

“Pretend to be a buffalo, Dad” (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

In the wild, learning through play is critical to a lion’s survival. Over in Kenya’s South Rift Valley, where the Zoo partners on a community-based conservation program to restore healthy lion populations called Rebuilding the Pride, lioness Nasha’s three girls are growing up fast! Born in April 2014, these sisters are just over a year old. Researchers recently captured some of their playful antics on camera – a good sign that these cubs are developing and learning the skills they’ll need in future life.

Nasha's cubs (Photo: Guy Western & Sarah Malcolm)

Nasha’s cubs (Photo: Guy Western & Sarah Malcolm)

Nasha's cubs at play (Photo: Guy Western & Sarah Malcolm)

Nasha’s cubs at play (Photo: Guy Western & Sarah Malcolm)

When is the best time to catch our lion cubs at play? Your best bet is to visit the Africa exhibit first thing in the morning or much later in the day, avoiding the heat of the day when the lions are most likely to just be “lion” around. (Sorry for the bad pun. I just couldn’t resist.)

Our pride at rest (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Our pride at rest (Photo: Kathy Newton)

May 19, 2015   1 Comment