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Category — General Zoo

Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! Meet Head Keeper, Rick Heithaus

Co-written by: Jenna Wingate, Kara McSweeney, & Wendy Rice (All keepers at the Zoo)

Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! This week, we will be honoring five of our “All-Star” keepers as nominated by their peers, starting with Rick Heithaus! As one of the Zoo’s most senior keepers, Rick boasts more than 30 years of exotic animal experience, working with an array of animals from big cats to the Asian elephants he works with today.

An historical photo of Rick Heithaus with an African elephant

An historical photo of Rick Heithaus with an African elephant

Rick Heithaus visits with an African elephant

A more recent photo of Rick Heithaus visiting with an African elephant

Rick is a great team player and he is constantly mindful of the well-being of both the animals in his care and the keepers working around him. Rick’s safety-oriented leadership when working with elephants is both admirable and invaluable. Rick goes out of his way to ensure the absolute highest safety standards are in place and he models safe behavior at all times. It takes a lot of self-discipline and focus to keep safety at the forefront of your day, and Rick has both in spades!

Rick introduces an elephant to a patron of our Behind the Scenes Experience

Rick introduces an elephant to a patron of our Behind the Scenes Experience

When interviewing some of the keepers who have worked with Rick, all praised his incredible mentorship skills. He never misses an opportunity to teach the young keepers something valuable, and he genuinely seems to enjoy sharing information with the next generation of keepers. Though he may seem soft-spoken and unassuming, once he opens up he is easy to talk to and more than happy to share. Young keepers who have had the pleasure of working with Rick love to hear his stories from “back in the day”. From camel rides to mixed-species elephant and hippo exhibits, Rick carries with him the experience and knowledge of a keeper who has lived through our industry’s “Wild West” days.

Rick during a Behind the Scenes Elephant Experience

Rick during a Behind the Scenes Elephant Experience

One of Rick’s coworkers describes him as the “Comedy Ninja” of his department, with hilarious jokes that come out of
nowhere! Rick never seems to complain, or even get mad. Rick has been involved with the “Adopt-a-Class” initiative for several years, and he is great with children.

In his personal life, Rick enjoys taking adventurous vacations with his wife, modeling a solid work/life balance for the rest
of us. His patience and humility are legendary and he models many of the Zoo’s core values on a daily basis. We are so proud to have Rick representing our amazing profession at the Cincinnati Zoo!

July 20, 2015   No Comments

CREW Joins the Race for Plant Survival

Guest blogger: Suzanne Yorke, CREW Research Lab Assistant

Plant conservation work at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) was featured in The Public Garden, the journal of the American Public Gardens Association, earlier this year in an article entitled “The Race for Plant Survival” written by Janet Marinelli. The article discussed the important role that public gardens like the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (CZBG) play in plant conservation, the technological advancements that are being made in this challenging work, and the goals for plant conservation in the future.

The article begins with the story of the 24-year (and counting!) conservation quest to bring the autumn buttercup, Ranunculus aestivalis, back from the brink of extinction, and how such large-scale conservation efforts have become increasingly collaborative.

Autumn buttercup

Autumn buttercup

Shortly after The Nature Conservancy purchased land in 1991 to protect the habitat of the autumn buttercup along Utah’s Sevier River, they realized that just setting aside protected land wouldn’t be enough. The population was dwindling too fast, and additional partners would be needed to save this federally listed species. Seeds were collected from the mere 20 remaining plants at the preserve and sent to CREW. Valerie Pence, CREW’s Director of Plant Research, germinated the seeds to grow a handful of genetically unique individuals. She then used her expertise in micro-propagation to develop tissue culture protocols for the autumn buttercup and the power of tissue culture to make hundreds of “copies” of these plants in vitro in test tubes.

Autumn buttercup (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

Autumn buttercup (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

The tiny plants were sent to Arizona to enter the care of the next partner in the process, the Arboretum at Flagstaff, which potted the plants in soil and prepared them for out-planting in their native habitat. The out-plantings and subsequent monitoring of the plants was achieved through additional partnerships with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Weber State University.

Autumn buttercup outplanting

Autumn buttercup outplanting

Three out-plantings since 2007 demonstrate how this reintroduction effort has required the long-term commitment and collaboration of several stakeholders to continue to boost the autumn buttercup population until it is self-sustaining. The autumn buttercup story is a great example of “integrated conservation”, whereby public gardens partner with government agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities to preserve endangered plant species. Learn more here.

Multifaceted conservation strategies are increasingly incorporating technology into species survival plans, which often combines reintroduction of plants into their native habitat, banking seeds and tissues in long-term storage, and maintaining living collections in gardens and arboreta. For example, the Frozen Garden in CREW’s CryoBioBank uses liquid nitrogen and cryogenic technology to store seeds and shoot tips of some of the most threatened plant species, like the autumn buttercup, at very cold temperatures.

CryoBioBank

CryoBioBank

However, even if species are banked, their native habitat may be changing faster than the plants can adapt to the changes. Advancements in molecular genetics ensure that public gardens are also preserving the genetic diversity of the species that are banked and in living collections. Therefore, when plants are ready for reintroduction, higher genetic diversity should increase their chances of survival in the wild and ability to adapt to changing conditions. Plants that are especially vulnerable to changes in climate include certain long-lived, slow growing tree species.

Globally, more than a thousand tree species are considered critically endangered. One aspect of their biology that makes them a conservation challenge is that many species of trees produce seeds that are not easily frozen in seed banks. Oaks, for example, produce large acorns that don’t survive freezing. CREW scientists helped develop techniques to dissect the tiny oak embryos out of the acorns, which they were then able to cryopreserve.

Oak embryo

Oak embryo (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

CREW scientists tested the technique using four endangered oaks and three were successful! More research is needed, but these advancements at CREW will improve conservation strategies for endangered oaks and other large-seeded tree species.

Unifying the plant conservation effort is the Center for Plant Conservation, which is made up of 39 gardens, including CZBG. This network of gardens safeguards seeds, tissues, and specimens of 788 of the rarest native plant species in the United States. With nearly 5,000 species considered at risk, there is much work ahead to achieve the goals of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which includes preserving 75% of plant species in living collections and seed banks by 2020.

CREW plant growth chamber (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

CREW plant growth chamber (Photo: Suzanne Yorke)

While achieving these goals may seem daunting, what is known is that the future of plant conservation will continue to be collaborative, it will rely on technological advancements like those developed at CREW, and public gardens like CZBG will continue to be at the forefront of this critical conservation effort.

July 13, 2015   No Comments

Using Cameras to Protect Keas in the Wild

Modified from an article written by Jackie Bray, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and Tamsin Orr-Walker, Chairperson, Kea Conservation Trust

The Zoo supports the conservation of kea, the world’s only alpine parrot species, in New Zealand through the efforts of the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT). Fewer than 5,000 kea remain and face threats such as conflict with people, loss of habitat, lead poisoning, predation by introduced invasive species such as stoats, brush-tailed possums, cats and rats, and unintentional by-kill by poisons used to control these invasive species.

Kea (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Kea (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

One strategy of the KCT to conserve kea in their natural environment involves the protection of nesting sites. During the past breeding season (July 2014 to January 2015), video trail cameras were used to monitor nest sites and document breeding activity and conflict events.

Kea outside a nest (Photo: Kea Conservation Trust)

Kea outside a nest (Photo: Kea Conservation Trust)

A total of 33 female keas were monitored over five research sites, resulting in five successful nests producing 12 chicks, which is more than were documented in previous years.

Kea chicks in a nest (Photo: Mat Goodman)

Kea chicks in a nest (Photo: Mat Goodman)

Once active nest sites were identified, cameras were placed at the entrance to monitor breeding activity, predator visitation and chick development. A series of predator control traps were also deployed around the nesting areas to help protect the birds until the chicks fledged. The cameras documented several nests being visited by predators. KCT used this information to extend trapping systems, resulting in decreased predator visitation.

A brush-tailed possum caught on camera visiting a kea nest (Photo: Kea Conservation Trust)

Brush-tailed possums caught on camera visiting a kea nest (Photo: Kea Conservation Trust)

The cameras also provided valuable information on kea survivorship and repellent effectiveness during the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s (NZ DOC) scheduled 1080 poison drops in the Kahurangi National Park. In 2014, New Zealand experienced an intensive mast (seeding) event which resulted in a significant increase in numbers of mice, rats and stoats. A previous major mast in 2002-2003 appears to have been the cause of an 80% decline in kea numbers at Nelson Lakes. Current population numbers could not sustain another such event, making the widespread use of 1080 poison necessary. The kea’s inquisitive nature makes them more likely than other native avian species to investigate the poison baits, so the use of chemical kea repellents in the 1080 baits is being studied to reduce unintentional by-kill. Unfortunately Ceejay, one of the most productive females in the area, was found dead after ingesting 1080 poison.

The cameras also proved useful in March 2015, when keas were blamed for damaging bicycles and other property in a residential area. Cameras set up in the area were able to capture noisy nighttime activity (which was attributed to kea) generated by at least two possums and three cats on multiple occasions. One possum was actually caught on camera damaging property. The cameras helped defuse conflict between community members and the kea by allowing the KCT to accurately document conflict events.

Kea (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Kea (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Video trail cameras have provided the KCT with an incredible amount of valuable data which has been used to protect kea nesting sites and mitigate several human-kea conflict situations. The cameras also significantly reduced the amount of hours necessary for personnel to spend in the field collecting data, allowing the saved resources to be used in other conservation projects.

 

 

 

June 26, 2015   1 Comment