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Category — Africa exhibit

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

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

Dreaming of Africa and a Future in the Wild for African Painted Dogs

The pups are out! The pups are out! It’s been a long time waiting for the weather to break so the African painted dog pups could come outside. For the past few months, only their keepers were allowed to access the holding area. As soon as the rest of us employees heard the pups were finally out, many of us made a beeline for the exhibit like giddy schoolchildren on a field trip!

"What are you doing down there, Mom?" (Photo: DJJAM)

“What are you doing down there, Mom?” (Photo: DJJAM)

As I sat and marveled at the antics of our 10 boisterous, playful pups exploring their outdoor yard for the first time, my thoughts wandered to what it would be like to actually see painted dogs in the wild. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Africa a few times—once to lead an Earth Expeditions course in Namibia, another time to lead a course in Kenya, and also to pick up my daughter whom we adopted from Ethiopia. Each time, I experienced amazing landscapes and wildlife from hippos to rhinos to lions, but never did I encounter painted dogs. This isn’t surprising considering the African painted dog is one of the most endangered carnivores in Africa.

If I were to travel to Africa with the goal of seeing painted dogs, Ruaha National Park and the region surrounding it in Tanzania would be the place to go. Not only does the third largest population of painted dogs live there, it’s also the home base of the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP), a conservation program that the Zoo supports.  RCP works with local communities to ensure the survival of carnivores and people in the region.

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

Ruaha landscape (Photo: Marcus Adames)

As it happened, the same day the pups first went out on exhibit, we also had a visit from RCP’s Director, Amy Dickman, who updated us on the latest news on the project. Amy is phenomenal and a very charismatic and inspiring leader, so much so that she was one of three international finalists for the prestigious Tusk Conservation Award last fall. This award recognizes individuals who have undertaken outstanding, inspirational conservation work throughout Africa. Although Amy did not win the award (this time), she did get to have afternoon tea with Prince William and it generated a lot of attention for the project, including this fabulous short film.

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

Amy Dickman and her team meets with the Barabaig tribe

As mentioned in the film, Amy has done a fantastic job winning the trust and participation of the local Barabaig people. It used to be one of the few ways to gain status and wealth in the tribe was to kill lions, but that’s changing. RCP has found a way to provide tangible benefits of protecting carnivores to the community. RCP provides education scholarships and materials, veterinary supplies and health care clinics, and those villages that can show they have the most wildlife in their area receive the greater rewards.

How exactly do they determine which areas have the most wildlife? It’s ingenious, really. RCP has started giving villagers their own camera traps and training them how to set up and manage them. For each predator or prey species captured on camera, they receive a certain number of points – 2,000 points for an eland, 3,000 for a hyena, 4,000 for a lion, 5,000 for a painted dog, and so on. And if the picture has a whole pack of painted dogs in it like the one below, they get 5,000 points for each individual dog!

African painted dogs in Ruaha

African painted dogs in Ruaha

Villagers are now more motivated to find ways to coexist with carnivores. Instead of killing carnivores to keep them from attacking their livestock, for example, they are building better bomas, or corrals, and using guard dogs to prevent depredation.

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

Puppies that will grow into great big guard dogs

In just five years, Amy’s work has resulted in a 60% decline in livestock depredation, a significant rise in people recognizing benefits from wildlife, and most importantly, an 80% decline in carnivore killing. Amazing! As RCP looks to the future, I hope the Zoo continues and strengthens its relationship with the project.

As for me, I may never see African painted dogs roaming the African savannah (though I’m not giving up hope), but knowing that we support great programs like RCP makes me optimistic about their future in the wild. For now, I am content to watch our pups trip over their paws and grow into their giant ears here at the Zoo. I hope you will join me!

"My ears are bigger than yours!" (Photo: DJJAM)

“My ears are bigger than yours!” (Photo: DJJAM)

p.s. The Zoo sponsors one of RCP’s field cameras. In return, RCP posts images taken by our Cincinnati Zoo Cam on a dedicated Facebook page; like the page to follow along!


April 20, 2015   2 Comments