Category — Enrichment
Although our mob of meerkats may be some of the smallest animals in our care, they are easily one of the most charismatic groups of animals in the Africa department. They love to engage with enrichment, spend their days digging impressive tunnel systems, and are great little trainers.
We have five males and one female that came to us from Disney Animal Kingdom. They are all named after famous musicians: Shakira, Mark, Bert, Louis, Zevon, and Santana. Shakira and Mark were born in the same litter and turned two on September 14. As far as I can tell, these two are our alpha meerkats. Bert, Zevon, and Louis all had their second birthdays in June. Santana is their father and will be turning seven this November.
Meerkats primarily eat termites and scorpions in the wild, but will also catch little rodents and lizards. They have great far sighted vision and have sentries that are always on the lookout for danger like birds of prey or jackals. Their forearms are very strong so that they can dig tunnels to live in. The tunnels have specific areas used for specific reasons- like a nursery, bedrooms, and latrines.
Below is a little bit about each of our meerkats and why they are one of my favorite animals to work with:
Shakira is the matriarch of the group and you can tell by her chubby belly-she definitely gets all of the food she thinks she deserves. She is great about getting her nails trimmed (what girl doesn’t enjoy a manicure every once in a while?) and also station training. I hardly ever see her playing the sentry role, but she will dig and wrestle with the boys. Shakira was recently observed stealing a cicada from a cicada killer! She’s one tough cookie and can most easily be identified by her tail having the least amount of black on it.
I believe that Mark is our most dominant male based on the fact that he is Shakira’s side kick, never gets in tussles with the other males, and is our most confident trainer. Mark will run around the entire exhibit touching his nose to his blue, star shaped target for a tasty reward of mealworms and crickets. Mark always makes his way over to greet me when I enter the exhibit (if he isn’t snoozing in a tunnel), but it seems to be strictly because he is hoping to get food-not because humans are so fun to hang out with. He can most easily be identified by the “kink” or bend in his tail about an inch from the base (we do not know what caused this and it does not bother him).
Zevon loves shoes and boots. He will dig at shoes or into my boots for minutes at a time, I imagine they must have many interesting smells on them from all of the other animals in the Africa department. Zevon is one of our friendlier meerkats and is doing well with his station training. I believe he is one of our middle ranked meerkats. From my observations Zevon spends most of his mornings on top of the termite mound filling the sentry role, keeping an eye on everything as the others get to digging their tunnels. He has what I call a “bulb” on the tip of his tail-it is thicker and rounder than the other meerkats’ tails.
Louis is our shyest meerkat, which makes training with him a little bit more difficult. For now, while the others are station and target training, Louis will get rewarded with bugs just for coming towards his keepers. He will approach us with his siblings and hang out around us when bugs are involved, but he does not approach keepers as a solo meerkat and hides out the most when it is time for their monthly flea and tick treatment (about a drop of liquid is applied between their shoulder blades). Louis seems to enjoy attacking feathers that we use for enrichment and spends a lot of his time being the lookout meerkat. Louis and Zevon seem to be our middle meerkats and will once in a while challenge each other for their spot on the totem pole.
Bert is my favorite meerkat (shh don’t tell the others)! He is the bravest and friendliest with keepers and even once in a while he will climb up to my shoulder and will use me as a termite mound to get a better view. He enjoys painting and sitting on the scale when it is time to get monthly weights. Bert is most likely one of the more submissive meerkats and doesn’t cause too much trouble with the rest of his siblings. He seems to truly enjoy hanging out near his keepers and will use us for shade and lay down next to me on hot days. Bert participates in all training activities, but he doesn’t seem to be as quick of a learner as Mark, Zevon and Shakira with target and station training.
Santana is another favorite among keepers. He is the oldest of the group and is the most subordinate. Because of his low rank on the totem pole, Santana is hesitant to come out when the other meerkats are around. He doesn’t seem to mind being near his keepers, but is typically the least visible because of group dynamics. He is extremely vocal and when he comes in for his dinner at the end of the day he barks at us incessantly until he receives his special meatballs we save for him to make sure he gets his fair share of food while the others are eating. Santana is the easiest to pick out, he is the smallest with an all-black nose and spends the majority of his day digging. He LOVES to dig.
October 5, 2016 3 Comments
When I was invited to join Cat Ambassador Program (CAP) trainer Lauren K. on one of her overnight shifts with Donni the five-month-old cheetah cub and his puppy companion, Moose, I accepted without hesitation! As part of Donni’s training to become a Cincinnati Zoo cat ambassador, four full-time CAP trainers are caring for the cub and his chocolate lab buddy 24/7 and take turns spending the night with the playful pair on a fold-out futon in the cat facility’s kitchen. I was excited to witness the evening routine and prepared not to get much sleep!
Arrival (5 p.m.) – I meet up with Lauren who explains that these overnights are a critical part of raising ambassador cheetahs, as they can be very delicate cats. However, it’s also one of the best parts of the job! A normal day in the life of a CAP team member is fulfilling, but forming a bond with a young cheetah like this takes rewarding to another level!
The dynamic duo will be ready to stay through the night on their own soon, but for now, the trainers are working on creating an unbreakable bond that will last a lifetime. As Donni learns to trust his trainers, Moose teaches him social behaviors and provides comfort and companionship (similar to the role Blakely (the Australian shepherd) plays in the Zoo’s Nursery). The two will keep each other company for the next few years as Donni grows up to be an ambassador for his wild counterparts. Moose will help us educate visitors about how dogs are used for conservation across Africa.
Van Training: Lauren says first on the list is to order dinner (Meatball Kitchen… great vegetarian options too!) and hop in the van with Donni to go pick it up! The CAP travels to schools all over the tri-state, so it’s important for him to be at ease in the van. He doesn’t mind the van and will lay or sit down, and even stand on his back legs and put his front paws up so he can see out of the window. Donni, and all cheetahs taken off Zoo grounds, are put in a spacious crate in the back of the van for their riding safety. The walk to the van also provides a great opportunity for practice walking on a leash.
Dinner Time: While we pick up our food, and drive around Clifton, Donni relaxes in the back. It will be his turn to eat when we get back to the Zoo. This growing cub eats four times a day, at 8am, 12pm, 5:30pm and 10pm. His meaty meals consist of a raw beef diet and treat meat used for training. He eats 22 oz a day (Tommy, a full grown male cheetah at the Zoo eats 3 pounds a day). He’ll also get a chicken foot for extra calcium and to help him learn to rip and tear food. Training sessions go along with Donni’s feedings. He’s learning to sit and to respond to recall cues now. Eventually he’ll learn behaviors that will make medical procedures and exams easier to perform.
Play time: After Donni eats, Lauren puts him with Moose in their small outdoor yard for a play session. We take our food outside and watch the two run around the yard (hopefully burning off some energy!).
Socialization: Visitors are another part of the nightly routine to get Donni and Moose used to strangers. They will see thousands of new faces in their lifetime through school and education programs and socialization when they are young is important so they are used to being around people they don’t know and are comfortable and well-adjusted when they are adult cheetahs out at programs. Tonight’s visitor is Katie B. from Amelia (best friend perk). While she is helping with socialization, she learns about the Cat Ambassador Program and the hard work that goes into raising a cheetah ambassador.
Reinforcing Good Behavior: After visiting time is over, it is treat time for the boys! Donni receives a chicken foot and Moose gets a dog bone.
Nap time: After playing, visiting with Katie and receiving treats, the two are ready for a brief nap. As you can see, Donni is the dominant of the two and even takes all of the toys for himself during nap time!
Movie & Paperwork: While the boys nap, Lauren fills out a comprehensive log detailing everything that Donni & Moose have been doing this evening. Each night, the trainer on duty will document food intake and activities to make sure they are progressing as they should be. I watched “Duma,” a movie about cheetahs, while Lauren did paperwork.
Moose Training: After a short nap, it’s time for Moose’s training session. Each night, the keepers work on behaviors, each unique to the trainer. Lauren is working on high five, down, roll over, and circle around. She describes Moose as very smart and eager to learn! The trainers use a clicker to bridge the gap between the good behavior and the reward. When it’s clicked, he knows he did the right behavior and that food is coming. Between the four trainers, Moose has learned ten behaviors in a very short time!
After his training session, it’s time for leash practice. We do a quick walk to the van and back. Moose gets distracted by a bug.
Playtime Part II: When we return from the walk, Donni is well rested and ready to play again! Do these two ever tire out?
Donni Training: It’s time for another training session with Donni. He’s learning behaviors that will make vet check ups in the future less stressful and more comfortable for him. If a vet needs to draw blood, give a vaccine or trim his dew claw, he’ll be familiar with being touched in the indicated areas and will even offer a paw for certain procedures.
Bedtime: It’s finally time for bed, but Donni and Moose get a burst of energy before settling down. Moose heads to the mat Lauren laid out for him, and Donni kindly hogs the futon.
I squeezed my way onto the futon with Donni as Lauren finished up her log for the night. The feeling of of having a cheetah cub stretch it’s long, lean legs over you and fall asleep against you is something I will never forget. Cheetahs are endangered, and their population worldwide has shrunk from about 100,000 in 1900 to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs today. I feel lucky to be able to share this night with such an important ambassador.
Lights are out and it’s time to sleep! However, a small futon, a cheetah cub, a big puppy, two humans and a lot of excitement makes it hard to fall asleep! I finally doze off for a few hours and wake up feeling like someone is staring at me. I open my eyes and find I’m nose-to-nose with Moose who is sitting on the floor staring at me. Apparently he wants to play. He digs around in his toy box and pulls out toys. When he goes over to Donni at the foot of the futon and starts licking him, Lauren tries to get him to go to bed. He jumped up and laid in my arms. Having a puppy on one side of you and a cheetah cub curled up in the crook of your legs is the happiest feeling ever. I didn’t even mind that I wouldn’t get any sleep!
The noises overnight at the Cat Ambassador Program make me realize again the importance of having a comforting person around in these first few months. You can hear other small nocturnal cats playing with enrichment items and even Sir Francis Bacon running around in the middle of the night.
So until Donni and Moose are used to these random noises in the night, it’s important for a trainer to be nearby to comfort them! However, besides Moose’s 3am invitation to play, Donni seemed to snooze the night away.
Morning: 6am came early and it was time to get up and get moving again for the day. Lauren had just enough time to clean up before the next trainer arrived and run home before returning for her 8am shift. I’ve witnessed the dedication Cincinnati Zoo keepers have for their animals, but this is truly special.
The Enquirer is following Donni as he grows up and trains to be part of CAP. Keep up with Donni’s story on Cincinnati.com
Cat Ambassador Program
The Cat Ambassador Program (CAP) educates more than 150,000 people a year about the importance of cheetahs and other wild cat predators. From April to October, Zoo guests can witness cheetahs running and other wild cats performing natural behaviors during Cheetah Encounter shows. During the school year, CAP staff introduces students to cheetahs and small wild cats during assembly programs. The CAP also collects donations for The Angel Fund to support cheetah conservation. Cat Ambassador Program founder Cathryn Hilker and a cheetah named Angel worked together to educate people about cheetahs. Established in Angel’s memory in 1992, The Angel Fund raises funds to support a variety of cheetah conservation projects committed to saving cheetahs both in captivity and in the wild.
July 8, 2016 6 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Learn more about the Zoo Academy and hear inspiring stories from other graduates here.
May 22, 2015 1 Comment