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Category — Keeper’s Komments

Asha the Gorilla’s Expected “Little” Bundle of Joy is “Big” Part of a Much Larger Picture.

The Cincinnati Zoo Primate Department provides excellent care for our extended family of about 25 primate species, which includes approximately 70 individuals. A lot of effort goes into their care and proper management. In addition to the basic nutritionally balanced diet, exemplary husbandry, and dynamic environmental enrichment, a comprehensive operant conditioning (OC) program has been in place for more than ten years.  Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement refers to a method of training that incorporates building a trusting relationship with the animals along with a systemic communication technique that allows keepers to cooperatively shape desired behaviors needed from them to make the animals’ lives better.

Primate Department keepers, Stephanie Sauer, Benny Smith and Grace Meloy watch on as keeper/ trainer Ashley Ashcraft places an ultrasound wand to Asha’s abdomen while reinforcing her with grapes.  Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, monitors the images.

Primate Department keepers, Stephanie Sauer, Benny Smith and Grace Meloy watch on as keeper/ trainer Ashley Ashcraft places an ultrasound wand to Asha’s abdomen while reinforcing her with grapes. Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, monitors the images.

For instance through OC training, the Zoo’s Western-lowland gorillas have numerous behaviors that they will offer to aid in evaluating health.  The gorillas will present their hands, feet, ears, bellies, backs, knees, shoulders, open their mouths, and stick out their tongues, all on cue followed by a positive reinforcement, which is usually a favorite food item like grapes.  OC is engaging and mentally stimulating for the gorillas and allows keepers and vets the opportunity to do some important work with them.  The Zoo’s gorillas will also allow cardiac ultrasound imaging work to be done, all voluntarily, while awake, through a protective mesh safely separating the keepers and gorillas. Training techniques are also used to encourage natural behaviors and help form a cohesive social dynamic within the family group.

Primate Keeper, Grace Meloy, and Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, discuss fetal ultrasound images from Asha the gorilla.

Primate Keeper, Grace Meloy, and Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, discuss fetal ultrasound images from Asha the gorilla.

Recently, we initiated some maternal management behavior training with an expecting gorilla named “Asha”.  One of our primary goals was to do regular fetal ultrasounds throughout the pregnancy.  Early on in the pregnancy, primate keeper Ashley Ashcraft  worked as the primary trainer for this.  As with most of the OC work, the zoo’s wonderful vet techs, Jenny Kroll and Amy Long, were also included to assist with the monitoring, along with additional help from the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) scientists. Throughout Asha’s gestation we have been able to follow along with fetal development and are still doing ultrasounds once or twice a week as we come down to parturition.  At this point, the fetus is a little too big to see fully on ultrasound but we clearly see a good heartbeat and movement.  Asha, understandably, rests a lot and eats like a horse.  She is still well within the predicted birth period so all is looking good. Gorillas have a gestation period of 250 to 280 days.

Asha will be a first-time mom but has great history with younger siblings, from growing up in Brownsville, Texas.  She has also had the chance to watch little Gladys, with her surrogate mother “Mlinzi”, for additional lessons. The Zoo’s team of volunteer observers are also watching Asha overnight, by remote monitor, just to be extra safe.  The family group Asha currently lives with is very cohesive and lead by the great silverback, named “Jomo,” who is also very good with little ones.

Jomo (formally of the Toronto Zoo) and Asha, along with approximately 360 other gorillas in about 50 zoos, are managed cooperatively through something called a Species Survival Plan(SSP) under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).   The SSP carefully tracks the genetics of each gorilla, gorilla personalities and facilities, and with critical input from each zoo, develops a comprehensive Masterplan every two years that outlines recommended transfers for breeding, or to help social situations.  Zoos are very altruistic in how they view gorillas and work hard together for the betterment of the overall big picture management.

So, thanks to great team work on the national level, as well as right here at the Cincinnati Zoo, we are prepared and patiently awaiting the birth of Asha’s baby.  Everyone is excited and very hopeful all will continue to go smoothly as we come down to the end.  Stay tuned……

July 31, 2014   1 Comment

Meet Children’s Zoo Keeper Eunice Frahm

Contributors: Paul Sambrano, Wendy Rice & Linda Castaneda

Eunice with Cinder, Thatcher & Magnolia

Eunice with baby pigs Cinder, Thatcher & Magnolia

When it comes to representing the zookeeping profession, Eunice Frahm makes us proud in so many ways. Eunice works as a keeper and trainer in the Children’s Zoo. Few keepers rival her incredible enthusiasm when it comes to visitor engagement. If you’ve walked anywhere on Zoo grounds in the last few years, then you’ve seen Eunice parading some of her collection animals around to the delight of visitors and Zoo employees alike!

Eunice out for a walk with the 3 pigs

Eunice out for a walk with the 3 pigs (all grown up!)

She is hard working, has a great attitude and is a progressive thinker focused on problem-solving. She is an incredible example for her colleagues, and her enthusiasm and passion for animals spread to everyone around her.

Since joining the Children’s Zoo team, Eunice has turned her collection of domestics into one of the most popular animal shows at the Zoo, the Barnyard Bonanza. Her impressive training abilities even allow children a rare opportunity to become part of the show by racing chickens and giving goats high fives, embracing visitor engagement on a level unrivaled by any other show at the Zoo.

Paul Sambrano (Eunice’s colleague) has a nickname for her, hummingbird, because just like the

birds, she never stops, and is always on the move! Even if Eunice has downtime during her work day, she usually spends it thinking about what else can be done to help her animals. She is one of the most energetic people you’ll ever meet.

Every morning, Eunice comes in to work with a game plan, and even a couple of alternatives if

things don’t go accordingly. No matter how tired or sick she is, Eunice is always ready to work. As a keeper, she’s always looking out for the well-being of every animal, and to Eunice, every animal is equally important to the collection.

July 26, 2014   1 Comment

Meet Rhino Keeper, Marj Barthel

Contributors: Megan-Kate Ferguson & Wendy Rice

When it comes to dedication, Marj Barthel exemplifies the word. Marj works as a keeper in the Rhino Reserve (also called the Veldt). She is extremely committed to her team of coworkers at the Veldt, as well as her collection of animals. Her passion for her profession is evident in all that she does, and she truly embodies loyalty to her animals.

Marjorie and black rhino

Marjorie and black rhino

One of the more difficult aspects of the zookeeping profession is managing the many different responsibilities that require our attention on a daily basis. Regardless of the demands, Marj always puts her animals first. Because the animals cannot speak for themselves, it is essential that we keep their best interests in mind with all decision-making, and Marj accomplishes this with zeal. Marj effectively manages her daily routine to ensure that there is enough time to spend on training with her animals. She recognizes the value in training and utilizes it to not only meet the needs of the animals, but also to ensure that our guests have a memorable experience at the Zoo. By making time for extra training, Marj is able to improve the quality of life for her animals by minimizing stress and facilitating basic husbandry.

Arguably one of the most important qualities a zookeeper can have is passion. In a job where the work can be so exhausting and emotionally draining, only the keepers with true passion are able to push through the hardest days and keep on fighting the good fight. Passion and enthusiasm can be contagious, and anyone who has worked alongside of Marj can tell you first-hand how passionate she is about her animals and her work. The emotional ties she has with her animals are apparent and she very obviously loves each of the creatures in her care.

While Marj may be an introvert at heart, she pushes herself past her comfort level to deliver keeper chats and provide behind-the-scenes tours whenever it is asked of her. She is a significant part of her team and she is integral to the daily lives and care of her animals.

At the core of this profession, there must be a love of animals and a respect for wildlife. Marj absolutely represents this core value, and we are so glad to have her on our team.

July 25, 2014   No Comments