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Category — General Zoo

Celebrate World Okapi Day!

Guest blogger: Kelly Carpenter, Seasonal Keeper

Happy World Okapi Day! First, what is an okapi? Well, do not let the stripes on its back half deceive you. The okapi is actually the only living relative of the giraffe; thus, the nickname “forest giraffe”. The okapi was not discovered until 1901 because of its mysterious nature. It is a solitary animal, with the exception of mating and when a mother is with her calf. It lives deep within the Ituri Forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ituri Forest is extremely dense, which has allowed for the okapi to remain hard to observe. This, along with its zebra-like stripes that look like streaks of sunlight filtering through the trees and its brown velvety fur, also helps this herbivore stay hidden from predators. Now when I say velvety, I truly mean that its fur feels like touching a piece of velvet. This fur has an oily texture that allows for the okapi to mark its territory and keep it dry on rainy days.

Meet the okapi! (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Meet the okapi! (Photo: Kathy Newton)

The okapi is around the size of a horse, standing about six feet tall at its head and weighing between 500 to 800 pounds. Just like a giraffe, it has a 14 to 18 inch long tongue that can wrap around limbs of trees and leaves, or even groom itself or calves with (there is a good chance you have seen one of our okapis licking their own eyeballs). Something that a lot of people do not know is that the okapi uses infrasonic sounds to communicate with other okapis. These are sounds that are below the range of human and predators hearing. It is very useful when a calf is first born as a way for the mother to get in touch with it; think of it like putting your cell phone on silent. The calf goes through what is called the “nesting phase”, in which it lies in vegetation for two to three months, conserving all of its energy for sleeping and nursing. It remains in this phase until the calf maintains its temperature, activates the rumens in its stomach, and defecates for the first time. This is the reason why our new calf will remain inside for the first few months after he or she is born.

Me with Kiluai!

Me with Kilua!

You read that correctly, we are expecting an okapi calf this spring and we could not be more excited for his or her arrival! I am a seasonal keeper in Rhino Reserve where I have had the pleasure of working with the two okapis that call the Cincinnati Zoo home, and I have been completely captivated by them. Kuvua is our 7-year-old female (her birthday is coming up on November 4th) and is our mother-to-be. This will be her second calf. Her first calf, Kilua, recently moved to the Dallas Zoo to start a family of her own! Kuvua is truly a sweetheart; she is extremely gentle and easy-going. Her favorite foods include leaf-eater biscuits, lettuce and bananas.

Kilua and Kuvua (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Kilua and Kuvua (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Kiloro is her other half and is a 9-year-old male. He is very gentle as well, but tends to be a little bit more stubborn and knows what he wants. His favorite activity is chewing on branches or stealing browse straight from you so he can eat it right away. Both of our okapis are very smart and are trained for hoof trims, blood draws, and other medical behaviors. This training occurs through operant conditioning and requires myself and the other keeper staff to build a trusting and respectful bond with them.

Kiloro, our male okapi

Kiloro, our male okapi

Even with its hidden nature, this species is one whose existence is under threat because of human activities. In the wild, the okapi is completely dependent on the Ituri Forest. This forest is fighting the battle against deforestation, poaching, and mining. This has led the okapi to recently be classified as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Okapi Conservation Project is working to help protect the habitat of the okapi as well as the other plants and animals that call the Ituri Forest home. They are doing this by creating a wildlife reserve that focuses on working with the community to create awareness and an understanding of the problems at hand. They are providing wildlife protection and alternative agricultural practices for food and reforestation.

World Okapi Day was created to celebrate this mysterious animal, to bring awareness to the threats it faces, and to show you how you can help, too! Today at the Cincinnati Zoo, right outside the okapi exhibit, we will be doing fun activities including a scavenger hunt and a raffle, as well as putting out special enrichment. We will also have the keepers, including myself, that get to work with these amazing animals every day out and about to talk to you about our okapis and answer any questions that you may have.

Okapi (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Okapi (Photo: Dave Jenike)

You can also post photos on social media with #OkapiConservation or #WorldOkapiDay. Even recycling your old cell phone at the Cincinnati Zoo will help prevent future mining in the Ituri Forest. So please be sure to tell all of your friends and family to stop by the Zoo and visit the most mysterious and curious animal, the okapi. I hope you all okapied (copied) all of that information! Learn more about the okapi and World Okapi Day here. Happy World Okapi Day!

If you are like me and cannot wait for the new baby to arrive this spring, here is a video of when Kilua first made her debut at the Cincinnati Zoo.

October 18, 2016   1 Comment

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

Kea Conservation At the Zoo and Across the Pond

Where have the kea gone? If you’ve been to the Zoo recently, you may have noticed that the aviary home to our flock of keas (parrots from New Zealand), is undergoing renovations. We are adding two more outdoor enclosures, two private breeding enclosures, and central air conditioning to the housing building as well as giving the building a fresh coat of paint. While the work is in progress, the keas have been moved to off-exhibit holding. Before long, they will be back on display in their new and improved home.

The private breeding enclosures are especially important to continue our successful kea breeding program. Our current flock of 14 keas includes two new birds that were hatched right here at the Zoo last spring. One is an outgoing male named Arthur (wearing an orange leg band) after the Arthur’s Pass area in New Zealand where keas are found. The other is a feisty female named Marie Curie (wearing a red leg band) after the famous female French physicist and chemist. Soon we will receive a few new adult keas from other institutions to add new genetics to our breeding population, while some of our young juveniles will move onto other facilities.

In the field, the Zoo continues to support the Kea Conservation Trust’s efforts to conserve keas. Highly intelligent and curious birds, keas can sometimes be destructive to human property. KCT works with local communities to prevent and resolve conflicts that arise. Read on for an update from the KCT Conflict Resolution Coordinator.

Guest blogger: Andrea Goodman, Kea Conservation Trust

I am now well in to my second year as the Conflict Resolution Coordinator for the Kea Conservation Trust. In this year, I have encountered repeat offenders (mischievous kea turning up at more than one site!), increased my work with the forestry sector, and kept busy with phone calls, advice and visits to properties with kea present.

One of the noticeable differences from last year is the shear volume of calls. They are often from the public just letting me know they have kea visiting, causing absolutely no trouble at all. I think this is fantastic, and actually is a message the Kea Conservation Trust wants to get across. Just because you have kea visiting, it does not mean they will cause trouble. If you ignore them, and they are not fed, chances are they will move on with no drama.

Kea visiting property in Murchison (Photo: Lynette Hunter)

Kea visiting property in Murchison (Photo: Lynette Hunter)

An example of this was the influx of kea in the Murchison area (a small rural township in New Zealand) late last year. Up to 18 birds were arriving in the evenings and hanging around farms and the village. They were feasting on walnuts at a few properties, landing in backyards, and sometimes playing around. Generally, they were pretty well-behaved guests. The community organised a public meeting at which I gave a talk. It was a great question and answer session, myth-busting and advice forum. The kea hung around for quite awhile (probably until the walnuts ran out), but were pretty well-tolerated and left on their own accord. The community in general was really ‘stoked’ to have the kea around.

Andrea Goodman, Kea Conservation Trust, giving a community talk on kea in Murchison (Photo: Tracey Gross)

Andrea Goodman, Kea Conservation Trust, giving a community talk on kea in Murchison (Photo: Tracey Gross)

The low point for me during the year would have to be a phone call out of the blue from media asking me about an alleged shooting of kea at a forestry site. I was gobsmacked as I had no indication this had happened. I felt sick to my stomach as the alleged incident occurred at a forestry site I had previously visited. I felt a certain guilt that I had let the kea in my area down. What followed, however, was an amazing outpouring of support from locals, those further afield and the media – all equally appalled at an apparent inane act of violence. Although the shooting was never substantiated as the ‘shooter’ said he made the story up, it raised the profile of kea and highlighted the penalties for harming our native wildlife.

Young kea visiting Murchison (Photo: Lynette Hunter)

Young kea visiting Murchison (Photo: Lynette Hunter)

As I said last year, if you are having issues with kea, the best thing is to get on to it as soon as possible. The Kea Conservation Trust, with support from the Department of Conservation, does not advocate the translocation of troublesome kea. Instead, together we can look at areas where we can minimize damage and try to discourage kea hanging around. Sometimes it may be a really simple solution that can make a huge difference, or having an empathetic ear to talk to is all that is needed.

October 3, 2016   No Comments