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Minnow the Fishing Cat and her Trainer, Linda, Help Protect Fishing Cats in the Wild

Meet Minnow, the Cincinnati Zoo’s first and only fishing cat ambassador. Minnow helps spread awareness about fishing cats at the Zoo, and she has inspired her trainer, Linda Castenada, to support research and conservation of the endangered fishing cat in the wild.

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

Minnow and her trainer, Linda

The fishing cat is a medium-sized cat from the wetlands of Southeast Asia that feeds on rodents, birds, frogs, fish and other aquatic species. Good swimmers, fishing cats have been observed to dive into water after fish as well as to scoop them out with their paws.

Minnow the fishing cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Minnow the fishing cat (Photo: Mark Dumont)

During the Cat Ambassador Program’s summer show at the Zoo (called the Cheetah Encounter), Minnow shows off her expert hunting and fishing skills. As far as we know, she is the only current fishing cat ambassador working on stage in an AZA-accredited zoo. Fishing cats are shy and secretive by nature, which makes it challenging to get them comfortable in front of an audience. Linda, who has worked as the Coordinator and Lead Trainer with the Cat Ambassador Program since 2007, was up for the challenge. Since the age of four when she got her first pet cat, Suzi, Linda has always been a cat person.

Linda Castenada and her pet cat, Suzi

Linda Castenada and her pet cat, Suzi

 

With Minnow, it took a lot of patience and paying attention her natural behavior to condition her to display her hunting skills successfully in front of an audience. Following a very set routine is one of the keys to maintaining her comfort. And rewarding her with her favorite fishy treats!

Minnow dives (Photo: ChengLun Na)

Minnow dives (Photo: ChengLun Na)

Minnow catches her fish (Photo: Kathy Moore)

Minnow catches her fish (Photo: Kathy Moore)

After several years of working with Minnow, Linda decided she wanted to do more to support fishing cats in the wild where the conversion of natural wetlands for aquaculture and the persecution of fishing cats for raiding fish and shrimp farms threaten their survival. Linda recently took on a new role as the Education Advisor to the Fishing Cat Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to conserve species through research, breeding, education and conservation. Her mission is to increase awareness and raise funds for fishing cat conservation. To this end, Linda established the Fishing Cat Fund as well as a Fishing Cat SSP page on Facebook.

Fishing Cat Fund logo

She also secured support from the Cincinnati Zoo’s 2014 Internal Conservation Grants Fund for the Fishing Cat Conservancy’s program to conserve the fishing cat and its mangrove habitat around the Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary in India. Through the use of questionnaires, camera-traps, and in-field tracking with local communities, the Fishing Cat Conservancy and the Eastern Ghats Wildlife Society documents fishing cats in the region and involves local people in conservation education and awareness programs about fishing cats and their habitat.

Setting up a camera trap outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Setting up a camera trap outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Fishing cat caught on camera outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

Fishing cat caught on camera outside Krishna Wildlife Sanctuary (www.fishingcat.org)

This summer, I encourage you to catch Minnow in action during a Cheetah Encounter show and learn more about wild cats and their conservation around the globe.

Minnow post-swim (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Minnow post-swim (Photo: Kathy Newton)

February 18, 2015   3 Comments

Uma, Kya, Willa and their Wild Lion Cousins

Uma, Kya and Willa (Photo: Wendy Rice)

Uma, Kya and Willa (Photo: Wendy Rice)

As we prepare to introduce our visitors to John and Imani’s cubs – Uma, Kya and Willa – this spring, we are also celebrating the success of our efforts to support wild lion populations. We work with the Maasai communities in Kenya’s South Rift Valley to promote the coexistence of lions, people and livestock. A partnership with SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners), the Rebuilding the Pride program is based out of two communal ranches, or conservancies, called Olkirimatian and Shompole.

The South Rift Valley in Kenya is sandwiched between Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks.

The South Rift Valley in Kenya is sandwiched between Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks.

In 2014, the lion populations on Olkirimatian and Shompole continued to grow and thrive with 16 cubs born in 2012 and 2013 surviving to adulthood. Two radio-collared lionesses that the program monitors, Nasha and Namunyak, also recently gave birth to new litters of cubs. Just like Imani, Namunyak has a trio of cubs tagging along behind her. Namunyak’s cubs have not yet been given names as it is Maasai tradition to wait until they are at least a year old.

Namunyak's cubs (Photo: Guy Western)

Namunyak’s cubs (Photo: Guy Western)

As the lion population grows, so does the area across which they range, resulting in reports of lion sightings in new areas. In response, the Rebuilding the Pride team has added two new local Maasai resource assessors and a mobile monitoring unit. This allows the program to expand the area it covers and reach even more remote regions. The role of the mobile monitoring unit, equipped with tents, cameras and GPS, is to track lion and livestock movements, identify conflict hotspots, share this information with livestock herders and report cases of lost livestock to the rapid response team, which then addresses the situation.

Rebuilding the Pride's Mobile Monitoring Unit (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Rebuilding the Pride’s Mobile Monitoring Unit (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

In 2013, the team began developing a lion identification (ID) database, allowing for photographic documentation and identification of individual lions based on whisker spots. Much effort was put into updating and improving the ID system over the past year. To date, the team has created individual photographic IDs for 35 of the 60-70 lions, which is about half the population in the Olkirimatian and Shompole regions. Being able to recognize individual lions greatly enhances the team’s ability to gain new insight into the lion population.

ID photos for Muchezo (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

ID photos for Muchezo (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Whisker spot ID information for Muchezo (Source: Rebuilding the Pride)

Whisker spot ID information for Muchezo (Source: Rebuilding the Pride)

Rebuilding the Pride isn’t just about increasing the number of lions, however. Improving the livelihoods of the local people is critical to promoting coexistence. In addition to building local capacity as resource assessors, the Olkirimatian Women’s Group continues to manage the Lale’enok Resource Center that serves as Rebuilding the Pride headquarters. They also sell beadwork and solar lanterns and have begun a new enterprise this year – beekeeping. Several apiaries were established and the first harvest took place in November.

Maasai women involved in the beekeeping enterprise (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

Maasai women involved in the beekeeping enterprise (Photo: Rebuilding the Pride)

These are just a few highlights from the past year. WCPO.com recently interviewed me about Rebuilding the Pride so check out the article, if you’d like to learn more.We look forward to continued development and success in 2015, and can’t wait to watch both Imani’s and Namunyak’s cubs grow over the coming year.

 

February 12, 2015   No Comments

Samantha: The Grand Old Lady of the Cincinnati Zoo

Today we celebrate Samantha the gorilla’s 45th birthday!

Sam and Samantha

Sam and Samantha

There are about four reptiles living at the Zoo today that have estimated ages older than Samantha, but she is the oldest animal with a confirmed birth date and the oldest non-reptile. Daughter of the legendary founder gorillas King Tut and Penelope, Samantha was born here on January 31, 1970. She and another gorilla, Sam, were born about a week apart and they were the first two gorilla babies born and raised at the Cincinnati Zoo. They were hand raised with the assistance of Good Samaritan Hospital, hence the names Sam and Samantha.They were huge celebrities featured in dozens of articles, photos, postcards and fanfare.

Samantha has been here to experience all of the changes in philosophy that have transformed the Zoo from an old school menagerie to a modern day zoo. Born in the old Ape House in 1970 where the gorillas lived inside year round, Samantha moved to the first naturalistic outdoor gorilla habitat anywhere, Gorilla World, in 1978.

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Gorilla World (Photo: Dave Jenike)

She has experienced innovations in animal nutrition from a high fruit-based diet to today’s high variety bulky green fiber-rich nutritionally balanced diet. She has also experienced the start of comprehensive animal enrichment efforts at the Zoo that provide for animal welfare as much as their physical needs. Over 10 years ago, she was here when we began formal operant conditioning programs at the Zoo as well.

Samantha has also experienced the change over from primarily pulling baby gorillas for hand-rearing to encouraging mother-rearing through improved husbandry and social behavior management. She is the best mother gorilla in the history of the Zoo and has given birth to six gorillas. Samantha’s first daughter, Madge, was born in the early 1980s. She was named after the late great iconic long time Zoo Volunteer Madge Van Buskirk.

Samantha with one of her six babies

Samantha with one of her six babies

Probably the most intelligent gorilla at the Zoo, Samantha is one of the most socially savvy gorillas, too. She has long been the strong matriarchal leader no matter which individuals are in her group. Samantha has lived with over 36 individual gorillas including: Sam, Gigi, Ramses, Kamari, Amani, Rosie, Penelope, Hatari, Tara, Mahari, Bibi, Madge, Muke, Mlinzi, Babec, Ndume, Kweli, Harry, Jackie, Tufani, Colossus, Kima Kubwa, Chaka, Samson, Chewie, Mara, Kijito, Kicho, Cecil, Shanta, Jomo, Bakari, Asha, Anju, Gladys and Mondika. In recent years, she has toned her leadership role back some, but is still respected among the other gorillas.

Samantha has served as an inspirational ambassador for both ex situ and in situ gorilla conservation programs and she is revered among the primate staff and her followers. I even named my daughter after her. (By the way, if you ever should name your daughter after a gorilla, apparently you should not tell her fourth grade class that fact during a visit to the Zoo. I thought it was cool, but being called “gorilla girl” by mean little boys can be a hard thing to live with, I hear.)

At 45 years old, Samantha still seems to be going strong. She is engaged in all of our programs, including operant conditioning, and is one of the best students. In recent years, she has been trained for awake cardiac ultrasound exams and the ticker is looking good. Samantha has seen it all and hopefully she sticks around for a long while to see a whole lot more.

Samantha and her son, Samson

Samantha and her son, Samson

January 31, 2015   1 Comment