Category — Keeper’s Komments
At the end of last summer I wrote about training Klyde, our male black Rhino, to happily enter a crate, so he could travel to his new home and hopefully produce a bouncing baby rhino calf.
But when Klyde left he also left us with an empty exhibit and a hole in our heart. He would come down to our encounter area each and every day allowing visitors to have an up close experience, watching him do his training behaviors. All could appreciate how strong and intelligent he was, how all 3,450lbs of him moved effortlessly, and how truly magnificent he was. He was after all the mascot of the zoo, the rhino in our logo, who could ever fill this void or even come close to replacing him?!
Enter Seyia! This three year old adolescent and southern bell came to us from her birth zoo in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leaving her mom and the only keepers she has ever known, this brave little lady arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo in late Aug of 2013. In a few short weeks she went from being timid and little nervous, of all that was new, to her to relishing her keepers and exhibit. When she found the mud wallow for the first time you could physically see the joy and excitement on her face.
Adjustment period flew by for her and quickly she was ready to learn more than just her exhibit and keepers. She was ready to start training! Marjorie, her main keeper, had a list for us to begin training from. The first was for Seyia to lean her body against the poles of her enclosure, so she could be bathed, skin checked and oiled, and just for an overall good evaluation of her health. We couldn’t believe how quickly she caught on to asking her to move over. Then we added asking her to place her front foot on a block so we could begin doing foot care, she figured this out rapidly too! The first time the “light bulb” went on, she lifted her foot so high we were laughing about her overzealous nature to please. The next hurdle was teaching her to lie down. Imagine asking a 2,400 lb animal to place herself in the most vulnerable position, in front of hundreds of visitors. She is now doing this reliably out on exhibit during her training sessions!
Smart is not all Seyia has going for her, she is also very sweet natured and craves attention from her keepers. So much so she began calling to them, something black rhino’s are NOT known to do. Marjorie and I decided it would be an incredible experience for patrons to be able to hear this animal actually make a sound. So we began capturing the behavior and now she will “speak” on command. She is still a little unsure how loud we want her be outside, but inside she is quite happy to be loud all day! Her vocal call is such a different sound. Some compare it to a whale, others to a bird, and some say it sounds like a child’s kazoo. The best part is this spring and summer you will be able to hear her, see her, and watch her train with Marjorie in her exhibit!
April 7, 2014 2 Comments
Last week, Sihil, the Zoo’s 14-year-old ambassador ocelot, showed off her spots at an Ocelot Conservation Day Festival held in Brownsville, Texas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Gladys Porter Zoo hosted the event to highlight ocelots, which are native to South Texas.
In the United States, ocelots once roamed throughout Texas and into Arkansas and Louisiana. Today, fewer than 50 wild ocelots remain in the country, deep in South Texas. One of two known Texas populations survives on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Since 1997, the annual ocelot festival has helped educate thousands of people about the importance of conserving ocelots and what they can to do help. Nothing impacts the audience more than experiencing a real live ocelot, which is where Sihil comes in.
The Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program is one of the few programs in the country that trains and works with ocelots to display natural behaviors for large audiences. Since 2007, Sihil and her trainers have traveled to Texas each year to appear at the festival. Having recently taken on a new role as the Education Advisor for the AZA’s Ocelot Species Survival Plan (SSP), I was fortunate to be able to tag along this year to learn more about Texas ocelot conservation and meet the people I’ll be working with on it in person.
After packing up the Cat Ambassador Program van with everything to meet Sihil’s needs for the week-long trip, which included a travel crate, her larger mobile “condo” crate, a cooler packed with raw meat and bones, plenty of kibble and enrichment items (aka toys) and more, we hit the road.
Sihil is a champion traveler. She slept a lot, which cats are known to do, so that I often forgot she was even there (despite the persistent ocelot scent that lingered in the van) until she let out a low, raspy meow to remind us when it was close to snack time. After two days of travel, we arrived at our cabin at Cactus Creek Ranch and prepared for the next two days’ events.
The first order of business was an appearance at the Cameron County Office in downtown Brownsville. FWS staff briefed the Cameron County employees on the issues facing ocelots in their area and talked about ways they could work together to solve them. For example, FWS and the Texas Department of Transportation are teaming up to install wildlife crossings on highways to prevent ocelot road mortality, one of the major problems they face. Next, it was Sihil’s turn to impress the audience, working with her trainer, Alicia Sampson, while Wendy Rice, the other trainer, shared information and answered questions.
Later that afternoon, the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge hosted an Ocelot Soiree at the Gladys Porter Zoo to raise funds for conservation. The food, drinks, auction, presentations and conversation were fantastic, but Sihil once again stole the spotlight.
The following day was the actual Festival held at the Gladys Porter Zoo. More than 1,300 people attended the event and took part in a variety of activities from face painting and crafts to talking to wildlife officials about protecting ocelots and planting native plants to restore the thorn scrub habitat on which they rely.
There was even a singing zoologist, Lucas Miller, on hand to entertain families with his conservation-minded songs. He wrote an ocelot song just for the occasion:
And, of course, Sihil and her trainers took their turn on stage throughout the day. For many of the local families in the audience, this was their first time seeing a real live ocelot, an ambassador for her wild counterparts that live right there in South Texas. She got some great local press.
Sihil did great. The trainers never force her to perform; it’s her choice whether she wants to come out on the table and display the behaviors Alicia asks her to do through visual and verbal cues. In return, she is rewarded with meaty treats. Sihil and Alicia have developed a special trust and bond over the past 10 years that they’ve worked together. Alicia can read Sihil’s body language and pick up on cues such as the “naughty tail” – when Sihil begins quickly flicking the tip of her tail back and forth – that let her know when it’s time to wrap it up.
And what did I do while they were working? Took lots of pictures, talked to lots of people and wrote down lots of notes. As the Ocelot SSP Education Advisor, I will play a role in helping to develop and implement an education and awareness campaign to accompany one of the next big goals – the translocation of ocelots into the area. Although there are still a lot of logistics to work out, the hope is that ocelots from a healthy population in Mexico will bring much needed new genetic material into the small population in South Texas in the near future. When a population starts to lose genetic diversity, it is less able to adapt to its environment and more likely to go extinct. The animals are more prone to diseases, low reproductive rates and genetic abnormalities.
In the meantime, Sihil will continue to educate Cincinnati Zoo visitors this summer during the Cat Ambassador Program’s Cheetah Encounter show. At 14 years old, Sihil is still in tip-top shape, but approaching the expected lifespan of about 20 years in captivity. So the Zoo has brought in a new young male named Santos as her protege. Maybe next year, Santos will carry on Sihil’s legacy at the Ocelot Conservation Festival.
March 19, 2014 2 Comments
John and Imani, our two African lions, are getting to know each other behind the scenes. To make their eventual pairing as successful as possible, the introduction process is slow, strategic and multi-phased.
Today we gave John some straw from Imani’s enclosure. You can see his response in the above photo. The smile-like expression on his face, called a Flehmen Response, indicates that he’s “smelling” the scent using his mouth. There is a special organ between the roof of the mouth and the palate that helps detect certain pheromones and chemical cues. Basically, John is trying to figure out if Imani is sexually receptive by smelling her urine. In the animal biz, we often call it “stink face”! It looks pretty good on John!
Imani showed far less interest in the pile of John’s straw that she received, which is not surprising since we are not seeing any estrus behaviors from her right now.
Check back for more updates on John and Imani’s introduction process.
February 21, 2014 1 Comment