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Category — Africa exhibit

Get to Know our Mob of Meerkats!

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.

BFF's Mark & Shakira

BFF’s Mark & Shakira

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.


Jenna & meerkats interacting with enrichment

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.


Shakira’s tail has the least amount of black on it



Jenna & Mark!

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).



Mark has a bend in his tail about an inch from the base


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.


Zevon’s tail has a “bulb” on the tip – it is thicker and rounder than the other meerkat’s 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.




Trimming their nails! Meerkats get a meatball for coming onto the mesh – keeper holds a meatball with one hand and trims with the other!

October 5, 2016   3 Comments

Pondering the Coexistence of People and Wildlife on World Lion Day

Today is World Lion Day, a day to celebrate one of the most majestic and revered creatures on Earth. It is also a day to recognize that we need to take action to ensure the African lion population, with fewer than 20,000 lions remaining, has a future in the wild.

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

(Photo: Jeff McCurry)

In the South Rift Valley of Kenya, lion populations are growing, while elsewhere across the continent, they are in severe decline. The difference is testament to a human-wildlife coexistence approach taken by the Maasai South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) out of the Lale’enok Resource Centre.

At the heart of the program is a cadre of local Maasai who are employed as Resource Assessors (RA) to collect and apply ecological information directly relevant to community livelihoods, conservation and development. For example, the Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs monitor lion activity daily through various tracking methods. They share the information with local livestock herders, which enables the herders to make informed decisions on where to graze with minimal chance of conflict with lions.

The Resource Assessors team at Lale'enok Resource Centre

The Resource Assessors team at Lale’enok Resource Centre

Over the past nine years, the Cincinnati Zoo has supported the growth and innovation of the Centre and its programs. This past year, thanks to a grant through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conservation Grants Fund and Disney Conservation Fund, the Zoo supported the training of Resource Assessors to develop new, effective ways to collect and communicate information about human-wildlife coexistence to communities in the South Rift.

In June, the Zoo’s COO, David Jenike, and I traveled to the South Rift to lead a Community Educators Workshop for the RAs. The purpose of the workshop was to train the RAs on how to more effectively share and disseminate the information they collect to the local community, schoolchildren and visiting international audiences. We spent several days with the group of 14 RAs, discussing and practicing education outreach and community engagement techniques and skills.

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

RAs work on developing an educational presentation during the workshop

Following the workshop, Dave and I then taught the annual Kenya Earth Expeditions (EE) course. For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. The Kenya EE course focuses on co-existence between people and wildlife, and we spend the better part of our time in country working with the SORALO team at the Lale’enok Resource Centre. Having just completed the education workshop, the RAs were eager to try out their new communication skills with our EE students. They did a fabulous job, and I can’t wait to see how much more they develop over time.

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

The Rebuilding the Pride team of RAs teach Earth Expedition students how to track radio-collared lions

Across the greater part of their range in Africa, lions are not faring as well as they are in the Kenya’s South Rift Valley. We hope that SORALO’s efforts to promote coexistence between people and lions can serve as a model for communities in other regions.

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

A radio-collared lioness named Nasha and her daughter being monitored by the RAs

Here at the Zoo, we share the story of coexistence between people and wildlife on the African savannah with guests through our Africa exhibit and related education programs. The next time you visit, as you’re watching Henry and Bibi the hippos swim underwater, crushing on Cora the brand new baby giraffe, and admiring John and Imani the lions up close through the glass, I encourage you to reflect on the bigger picture. All of these animals you connect with at the Zoo have counterparts in the wild that rely on the capacity of our own human species to maintain a healthy planet and share our space with them.

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Guests visit John and Imani in the Africa exhibit (Photo: Mark Dumont)

August 10, 2016   1 Comment

Eight Ways a Trip to the Zoo Can Stimulate Your Child’s Interest in Art

Co-written with Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters Interpreter

Sometimes we think of art and science as living at opposite ends of a spectrum. Maybe you imagine that your zoology-loving child will say, “Art is sooo boooring,” when actually, art has the power to enrich lives at any age. According to PBS, for example, exposing kids to art can positively impact their motor skills, decision making, language skills, and more. Here’s how your Zoo visit can bring art to life for your child.

  1. Notice color, and help your child do the same. A great place to start is in the Wings of the World bird house where you’ll find an array of different birds in brilliant colors. Point out how colorful plumage, such as the iconic tail feathers of a peacock, can help male birds attract mates. Ask your child to point out what colors she sees and which ones she likes best. Bring crayons and paper along so that your kids can capture what they see.

    Colorful peacock! (Photo: Deb Simon)

    Colorful peacock! (Photo: Deb Simon)

  2. Study the murals in the animal exhibits in Night Hunters. They were painted by artist John Agnew, who has also painted murals for Cincinnati Museum Center, Miami Whitewater Forest, and for zoos as far away as Moscow, Russia. As a youth, he became interested in dinosaurs and reptiles, and took part in the Dayton Museum of Natural History’s Junior Curator program. His penchant for animals and talent for a realistic style of painting combined into a successful career. Agnew helped found Masterworks for Nature, a group of 15 prominent Cincinnati area artists, who raise money for conservation through the sale of their artwork.

    Bobcat exhibit (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

    Bobcat exhibit (Photo: Mike Dulaney)

  3. Admire a reproduction of a 2013 painting by renowned wildlife artist John Ruthven entitled Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon. The painting depicts Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, leading a flock. Martha lived at the Cincinnati Zoo, and when she passed away in 1914, the passenger pigeon went extinct. This painting was reproduced by Artworks on the side of a building in Downtown Cincinnati to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Martha’s passing in 2014.

    John Ruthven with his painting, Martha - the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

    John Ruthven with his painting, Martha – the Last Passenger Pigeon (Photo: Ron Ellis)

  4. Go on a scavenger hunt to find the many animal sculptures displayed throughout the Zoo. Ask your child to imagine how they were made. What can they learn about the animal’s features from studying them? Here is a short list:
    • Hippos and lions in the Africa exhibit
    • Gorillas outside Gorilla World
    • Manatees and crocodiles outside Manatee Springs
    • Galapagos tortoise near the Reptile House
    • Tiger in Cat Canyon
    • Passenger pigeon at the Passenger Pigeon Memorial

      Hippo sculpture (Photo: Shasta Bray)

      Hippo sculpture (Photo: Shasta Bray)

  5. Check out the recycled materials art in the Go Green Garden. Every year or two, the Zoo works with a school or community group to create a new piece of art for display in this space. The current piece was created by the 2014-2015 Colerain High School Ceramics/3D class. Ask your child to notice what types of recycled materials were used. What other materials could they imagine using to create their own recycled art?

    Recycled art created by Colerain High School students (Photo: Shasta Bray)

    Recycled art created by Colerain High School students (Photo: Shasta Bray)

  6. Turn your own Zoo photos into art. While you’re visiting, take lots of photos. (Why wouldn’t you?) Play with photo filters or experiment with Photoshop or a similar program at home. If your child is more tactically inclined, print the photos and together you might add borders or other embellishments. They’ll end up with a cherished memento of their visit.
  7. Visit our animal artists. Some of the animals who live at the Zoo, including elephants and rhinos, moonlight as artists. Observe each of these animals closely and see if you can figure out how they’re able to paint. Want to display a one-of-a-kind masterpiece created by one of our animal artists in your own home? Purchase one online or book a behind-the-scenes experience that involves watching a penguin, goat or elephant paint a canvas just for you.

    VIPenguin Tour

    VIPenguin Tour

  8. Get a “handimal” painted especially for your child. Visit the booth near Vine Street Village where the artists will turn your child’s handprint into a colorful and creative animal image. You’ll leave with a unique keepsake and your child will witness an artist at work.

    Handimals! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

    Handimals! (Photo: Shasta Bray)

August 3, 2016   4 Comments