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Category — Animal Sciences

The Importance of CREW’s Domestic Cat Research

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy student, Jane Collins

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) is famously known to the world for its hard work on saving endangered plants and animals. Whenever people learn about CREW, they hear about the projects on polar bears, Sumatran rhinos, wild cats, and many plant species including autumn buttercup, four-petal pawpaw, and Avon Park harebells. You learn a lot about how important these projects are, but I believe there is one important aspect of CREW that is not as well known to Zoo visitors as it should be. I’ll give you a hint, re-read the title!

That’s right. I’m talking about cats. I don’t mean the wild African lion, cheetah, or tiger that you may have been thinking about. I mean domestic cats. CREW’s Domestic Cat Research is actually important to saving endangered big cats in the wild. These special cats help CREW with a number of things, including testing a contraceptive vaccine and conducting oviductal artificial inseminations and embryo transfers.

Three of the CREW cats - Taneshia, Beth and Paige

Three of the CREW cats – Taneshia, Beth and Paige

The cats in this program are given vaccines for common diseases and are spayed and neutered when at the appropriate age so they are completely cared for. CREW volunteers take the time to socialize with the cats also so they are very affectionate cats and are never neglected.

As a Zoo Academy student, I personally have had the opportunity to spend time with the cats and see up close how well they are treated.  Washing cat dishes, litter pans, animal carriers, and a few other responsibilities may have not been the finest experience, but I liked that I was making even the smallest contribution to the care of the cats. I also was able to spend quality time with most of the cats playing and relaxing, whichever the cats preferred for the day.  I had a great time learning a few of the cats’ individual personalities. One cat physically demands love and affection by climbing right into your lap. Another is very vocal. And another cat even loves water.

My favorite cat was a three-year old grey tabby with black stripes. He was the largest male domestic cat I have ever seen and looked like he belonged deep in a dark jungle rather than at a zoo. At end of my time at CREW, he was up for adoption. I couldn’t bring myself to part with him and decided to take him home. His new name is officially Chaz. He likes to follow me around EVERY square inch of my house and cries when I’ve gone too long without petting him. He is a loving member of my family. It is very cool to have a cat from the Cincinnati Zoo that has contributed to research that helps to save endangered wild cats.

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

Me and Chaz, a cat I adopted from CREW

April 8, 2015   1 Comment

A Study to Honor Suci the Sumatran Rhino

The loss of our female Sumatran rhino “Suci” to iron storage disease just over a year ago on March 30, 2014 was a devastating blow to the Cincinnati Zoo’s Sumatran rhino breeding program. Iron storage disease is an insidious disease affecting many wildlife species that are maintained in zoos, ranging from marine mammals to birds. In addition to Sumatran rhinos, black rhinos are susceptible to the disease, whereas white rhinos and Indian rhinos remain largely unaffected.

Suci

Suci

The disease is extremely challenging because we do not know how to prevent it, diagnose it or treat it. The only known cure for the disease is frequent, large volume phlebotomies (blood collection), but nobody knows how much blood to draw or how often it must be removed to keep a rhino healthy, and it is difficult to perform phlebotomies without anesthesia. The best method for monitoring iron storage disease is to measure serum concentrations of ferritin, a protein involved in iron transport and storage, but ferritin can be species-specific, so an assay for humans or horses may not work accurately in rhinos. Such was the case with our Sumatran rhinos.

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

Electrophoresis gel of isolated rhino ferritin

However, thanks to a dear family committed to helping rhinos that wanted to make a gift in honor of Suci, CREW has embarked on a new study to develop an assay specific for measuring rhino ferritin. The first step – isolating the rhino ferritin protein – is complete, and our goal is to have a functional assay by this coming summer. Our hope is that the assay will be used to monitor iron storage status in many rhinos throughout North American zoos to ensure the disease is detected before the rhino becomes sick.

This project was made possible by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremy S. Hilton and Family.

(Reprinted from CREW Review Fall 2014)

April 3, 2015   4 Comments

Hand Rearing Kea: Behind the Scenes at Wings of the World

Here in the Wings of the World bird house at the Cincinnati Zoo, kea are all the hype this season. And this is with good reason. The success of the new interactive flight this past summer is noteworthy, but behind the scenes something just as exciting was occurring. The Wings of the World department includes an area off exhibit dedicated to incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks.  This year we successfully hatched out and raised six kea chicks. Raising this species is a very time consuming process that requires the help of all the bird staff over the course of five months, from day one of incubation to fledging.

Artificially incubating eggs is a delicate endeavor. Eggs are fragile and sensitive; therefore it is vital to keep them in a clean environment with precise temperature and humidity settings. The bird department has four incubators dedicated to this, all set up for different species of birds that may require different parameters. Eggs are weighed and candled twice a week in order to closely monitor development. Candling is a technique used to see the developing embryo inside the egg. This technique indicates to keepers whether or not a chick is developing correctly, is in the right position for hatching, and when the hatching process has begun. Keeping track of weights is an indicator of whether or not humidity in the incubator needs to be adjusted. Kea egg incubation term is 21-28 days.

Kea eggs in the incubator

Kea eggs in the incubator

Once a chick has pipped (pierced the outer layer of the shell), it is moved to a different incubator where the temperature and humidity is ideal for hatching. It can take anywhere from 24-72 hours for a chick to hatch. All six of our kea hatched out on their own and proved to be strong and healthy when they were immediately standing upright and exhibiting a feeding response.

Kea chick mid-hatch

Kea chick mid-hatch

After a few hours, the chick can be moved to another enclosure, called a brooder. The brooder keeps the chick’s environment at a warm stable temperature. Keepers use washcloths and towels rolled up in a bowl to simulate a nest. As chicks grow and down feathers come in, temperatures and enclosures are modified to fit their needs.

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

One-week-old kea chicks in brooders

Kea chicks are fed a specialized formula that meets all their dietary needs. The formula is made up fresh at each feeding and fed through a syringe. Weights are obtained daily and detailed notes are kept to ensure the chick is gaining the appropriate amount each day and hitting developmental milestones. The keas are initially fed every three hours, six times per day. That makes for a long day for the bird keepers! When the chicks start to become very mobile and curious with their surroundings, solid food is offered. Whether they play in it, walk in it, or sleep in it, it’s a good experience for them to have access to solids.  The bird staff spends a lot of time hand-feeding different food items in different forms until chicks begin to show interest. Overall, the best method to wean chicks is to have an adult kea around to show them how a real kea does it.

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Five-week-old kea chick sleeping in its food plate

Once the kea are fully feathered and starting to self-feed, we begin daily field trips to the kea exhibit and holding areas. This gives the chicks an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, explore, exercise, and learn how to behave around adult keas.  As the chicks become more comfortable in this new environment, the longer they can stay out. The length of the trips and the need for supervision from keepers all depends on how the kea seem to be adapting. Overall, it takes around four months to hand-raise a kea and then fully integrate it into the flock. This is on par with a kea chick that fledges around 3-4 months of age in the wild.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Juvenile keas have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) that makes them distinct from adults.

Raising kea takes a lot of time and effort from the bird staff, but the reward is great. The Cincinnati Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution to hatch out and raise kea in the last five years. What an accomplishment!  Next time you are at the Zoo, stop by the free flight aviary next to Wings of the World and see if you can spot one of our six juveniles, all grown up.

 

March 2, 2015   2 Comments