Category — Keeper’s Komments
I’ve put off writing this blog for a long time because I knew it would be a challenge. Early on, telling the cubs apart was much easier. Willa (the smallest of the bunch by far) had 4 very distinctive markings along her lower back. Uma was the largest and also the lightest in color. Kya was easy to distinguish because she matched Uma in size, but was much darker in color. Additionally, their vastly different personalities paired with whatever they were doing in the moment helped us to determine which cub we were looking at most of the time.
But as the cubs grew, their size differences began to diminish as Willa (our runt) caught up to her sisters. Additionally, the dark markings (which help to camouflage the cubbies as they hide from predators) began to blend together or fade. All three cubs’ coats took on very similar appearances. And I began to feel a little bit panicky about accurately identifying each cub. What kind of lion keeper can’t tell her lions apart? Honestly. Maybe I should just fill out my own pink slip to save myself some of the embarrassment.
Each day, I watched the cubs closely and took photos from every angle. I edited the pictures like a crazy person… zooming and cropping, changing the shading and the contrast, always looking for some clearly distinguishing features I could share with all of you. I would cheer for joy when I thought I’d nailed down an identifier but was quickly dejected when I realized that the same feature was actually present on another cub as well. Sometimes a new marking would appear (on the bridge of the nose for example), and it would turn out to be a wet spot that would dry and disappear. This was proving to be a very difficult task.
Fortunately, Willa stands apart from her sisters in a couple of real, but not-so-obvious ways. I can always seem to pick Willa out of the crowd because of her eyes. There is something very unique and distinctive about her eyes that is very different from her sisters’. They have an apprehensive, almost forlorn quality to them (a characteristic all too familiar from looking at John for the last few years).
Additionally, Willa has maintained her slightly darker coat color, and her cautious personality has persisted into her adolescence. If someone’s hanging back and staying close to Mom or Dad, it’s probably Willa. If someone’s over-reacting about a perceived threat (like a feather duster), it’s probably Willa. By pairing her personality with her very distinguishing eyes, Willa is easily the least challenging to identify.
But Uma and Kya are a different story. At one point, I even considered the possibility that Uma and Kya might be identical twins. That theory alleviated some of the feelings of inadequacy I was experiencing, but didn’t solve my problem. I still had 2 cubs that were VERY difficult to tell apart, and I had to figure it out soon before their few distinguishing features disappeared completely.
Fortunately for me, someone much smarter than myself figured out a long time ago that lions can be identified by their entirely unique whisker patterns. Just like our fingerprints (which are completely unique to us), a lion’s whisker pattern is completely unique to that lion and will never change over the course of its lifetime. In fact, this is the method utilized by researchers to identify different wild lions (especially with camera trap images). You can learn more about how wild lions are identified here.
So all that’s left to do is analyze some high-quality images of our girls and determine the unique whisker patterns of each. The picture of Uma shown below is a good example. The whisker spots on the right side of her face are clearly visible, and we can see 2 distinct whisker spots in the top row (or the identification row). When compared with the second row of whiskers (or the “reference row”), we see that the two whisker spots on top row line up almost perfectly with the 3rd and 4th whisker spots on the second row, forming a little square. This is unique to Uma and will serve as a full-proof method of identification for the rest of her life.
For the sake of comparison, a picture of Kya is shown below. Again, the whisker spots on the right side of her face are clearly visible, and, like Uma, we can see 2 distinct whisker spots in the top row. However, when compared with the second row of whiskers, we see that the two whisker spots on top row lay just on either side of the 4th whisker spot on the second row. Instead of a square (like Uma) Kya’s top whisker spots form a little triangle on the right side of her face. This is unique to Kya and will always be a reliable way of identifying her throughout her life.
So how will this help you to identify the cubs when they are out on exhibit this spring? It probably won’t. Unless they are laying right up against the glass viewing and they aren’t moving and the whiskers on the right side of their face are clearly visible. Then you should be able to figure out which cub you’re looking at. But what’s more likely to happen is that as the cubs get older, they’ll grow and change and develop. Together, we’ll learn their personalities and their tendencies. And maybe with all the roughhousing and play-fighting, someone might even end up with a tell-tale scar on their nose or cheek. Hopefully, at some point, they will become very clearly distinguishable for everyone, but until then, we’ll just have to keep tabs and count whiskers.
Want to practice your whisker identification skills? Try comparing Uma’s and Kya’s left sides! What do you see? Which whisker spots are unique? Keep practicing and in just a couple short weeks, you can try your hand at identifying the cubs live and in person as they go on exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo!
March 25, 2015 5 Comments
And the names of the painted dog puppies are Riddler, Bruce, Alfred, Hugo, Luke and Oswald for our six boys. Lucy, Quinn, Selina and Ivy are the four little ladies. If you didn’t catch the theme here, it’s Batman (don’t worry, I wasn’t that familiar with it either). Some are characters from the show, a couple from the comics, some from the motion pictures and others from the animated series. It all started when the one puppy we could distinguish from all of the others had an upside down white question mark on his back. This one clearly had to be called Riddler. The rest just followed.
However, there are two that are a bit more obscure and don’t fit the more well known character names. Luke and Lucy. They are indeed in the Batman realm, but it is not a coincidence that they have a deeper meaning to me. I have been working with African painted dogs for almost a decade. That is also how long I have been waiting to have a litter survive. Since painted dog puppies basically have a 50/50 shot of surviving, that all ten have thrived thus far and are doing great is a miracle! It has always been my hope to someday be able to pass on the names of the first pair I ever worked with. The first painted dogs that made me realize that this was going to be my life’s passion and to be involved in the bigger picture of their survival, both in captivity and in the wild.
As a zookeeper, we love all animals, but there are those that touch our hearts in ways that affect us deeply. Luke and Lucy were those animals for me. It is my hope that the ‘new’ Luke and Lucy (with their matching white spotted rumps), along with their siblings, inspire others to realize what special creatures painted dogs really are. This summer, you all will get the chance to see this for yourselves once they are on exhibit. Can’t wait to see you there!
March 20, 2015 7 Comments
Here in the Wings of the World bird house at the Cincinnati Zoo, kea are all the hype this season. And this is with good reason. The success of the new interactive flight this past summer is noteworthy, but behind the scenes something just as exciting was occurring. The Wings of the World department includes an area off exhibit dedicated to incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks. This year we successfully hatched out and raised six kea chicks. Raising this species is a very time consuming process that requires the help of all the bird staff over the course of five months, from day one of incubation to fledging.
Artificially incubating eggs is a delicate endeavor. Eggs are fragile and sensitive; therefore it is vital to keep them in a clean environment with precise temperature and humidity settings. The bird department has four incubators dedicated to this, all set up for different species of birds that may require different parameters. Eggs are weighed and candled twice a week in order to closely monitor development. Candling is a technique used to see the developing embryo inside the egg. This technique indicates to keepers whether or not a chick is developing correctly, is in the right position for hatching, and when the hatching process has begun. Keeping track of weights is an indicator of whether or not humidity in the incubator needs to be adjusted. Kea egg incubation term is 21-28 days.
Once a chick has pipped (pierced the outer layer of the shell), it is moved to a different incubator where the temperature and humidity is ideal for hatching. It can take anywhere from 24-72 hours for a chick to hatch. All six of our kea hatched out on their own and proved to be strong and healthy when they were immediately standing upright and exhibiting a feeding response.
After a few hours, the chick can be moved to another enclosure, called a brooder. The brooder keeps the chick’s environment at a warm stable temperature. Keepers use washcloths and towels rolled up in a bowl to simulate a nest. As chicks grow and down feathers come in, temperatures and enclosures are modified to fit their needs.
Kea chicks are fed a specialized formula that meets all their dietary needs. The formula is made up fresh at each feeding and fed through a syringe. Weights are obtained daily and detailed notes are kept to ensure the chick is gaining the appropriate amount each day and hitting developmental milestones. The keas are initially fed every three hours, six times per day. That makes for a long day for the bird keepers! When the chicks start to become very mobile and curious with their surroundings, solid food is offered. Whether they play in it, walk in it, or sleep in it, it’s a good experience for them to have access to solids. The bird staff spends a lot of time hand-feeding different food items in different forms until chicks begin to show interest. Overall, the best method to wean chicks is to have an adult kea around to show them how a real kea does it.
Once the kea are fully feathered and starting to self-feed, we begin daily field trips to the kea exhibit and holding areas. This gives the chicks an opportunity to adapt to a new environment, explore, exercise, and learn how to behave around adult keas. As the chicks become more comfortable in this new environment, the longer they can stay out. The length of the trips and the need for supervision from keepers all depends on how the kea seem to be adapting. Overall, it takes around four months to hand-raise a kea and then fully integrate it into the flock. This is on par with a kea chick that fledges around 3-4 months of age in the wild.
Raising kea takes a lot of time and effort from the bird staff, but the reward is great. The Cincinnati Zoo is the only AZA-accredited institution to hatch out and raise kea in the last five years. What an accomplishment! Next time you are at the Zoo, stop by the free flight aviary next to Wings of the World and see if you can spot one of our six juveniles, all grown up.
March 2, 2015 2 Comments