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Five Ways the Zoo Can Help You Practice Mindfulness

Guest blogger: Education Intern, Kristina Meek

It seems that nearly every day another study informs us of the benefits of mindfulness–for children as well as adults. Educators use mindfulness techniques in classrooms. A wide range of authors, from the scientific to the self-help ends of the spectrum, have published books on how to be more mindful.

A meeting of the minds (Photo: Kathy Newton)

A meeting of the minds (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Put simply, mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your thoughts. Mindfulness techniques can be as immediate as a deep breath or as long-term as a commitment to daily meditation. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to lower stress, ease pain, increase empathy, and improve concentration.

What does that have to do with visiting the Zoo? Animals are excellent tutors of mindfulness. They don’t constantly check their cell phones, worry about what others think of them, regret the past or fear the future. They live in the now. The Zoo offers myriad ways to practice mindfulness. Here are five:

  1. Watch the red pandas play. Or the river otters. Or the apes. Choose your favorite, but take several uninterrupted minutes to fully observe animals at play. They don’t worry about whether they look silly or how many calories they’re burning. They play with abandon. Science doesn’t understand completely why animals play, but it clearly benefits them. Whether you’re an adult or a child, you can learn about living in the moment from the animals.

    Visitors watch the river otters play. (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

    Visitors watch the river otters play. (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

  2. Engage your senses. A visit to the Zoo naturally coaxes you to use sight, smell, touch, hearing…and even taste, if you stop for a bite. Invite your children to describe what they see, hear, and smell. Encourage them to pet pygmy goats in the Spaulding Children’s Zoo. Sometimes it’s enough just to remember what the world looks like in three dimensions, rather than on a screen!
  3. Watch the manatees swim. Manatee Springs provides a comfy place to sit, close to the glass, with a view straight into the manatee tank. If you visit on a chilly day, mid-week, you’ll have the best chance at smaller crowds and a more relaxing experience. These hulking marine mammals twist and tumble gracefully through the water, inviting you to exhale and admire.

    Mesmerizing manatees (Photo: Kathy Newton)

    Mesmerizing manatees (Photo: Kathy Newton)

  4. Try not photographing everything. Of course, you’ll want a few photos to remember your visit. But, if you’re a member and stop by regularly, designate a “no photography” trip. Or limit yourself to taking photos of only certain activities. You’ll be more focused on what’s happening instead of capturing it for later. Plus, if your camera is your phone, leaving it holstered will minimize the temptation to check Facebook, e-mail, or other incoming distractions. Whether you’re with your kids, other family, or good friends, you’ll enjoy more quality time together.
  5. Visit the Garden of Peace. Sit a moment and relax in this lesser-trafficked corner of the Zoo, just off the path near Jungle Trails. Take in the multi-cultural messages of peace and bask, for a moment, in gratitude–one of the key elements of mindfulness.

So, wherever you are right now… take a deep breath, and start planning your next visit to the Zoo. And, when life gets too hectic to make the trip, we’re always a click away with photos and videos that offer you a mini break from everyday stress.

March 23, 2016   No Comments

Helping Scientists Assess the Body Condition of Polar Bears in the Wild

As our global climate continues to change, we are already seeing reports and photos of polar bears with decreased body condition. How can scientists track that trend in a consistent manner across the polar bear’s range over the long term? That’s a problem scientists with Polar Bears International (PBI) are working to solve.

A young polar bear male jumping in the pack ice in Norway (Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques)

A young polar bear male jumping in the pack ice in Norway (Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques)

The Body Condition Project is a pilot program to develop tools that non-invasively gather information on the body condition of polar bears. Conceived by PBI’s chief scientist, Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, it is being conducted in cooperation with the University of Wyoming and Purdue University, with support and participation of animal care and research teams at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, North Carolina Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo, and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

PBI has developed a Body Condition Index (BCI) card, which provides a standardized way to rate bears in the field through visual observation, and in some cases palpation or touch (if they are safely sedated). Over time, consistent records of body condition across years and regions will help scientists monitor individual condition, as well as how broader populations may be affected by large-scale environmental change, including loss of sea ice due to climate change.

Polar Bear Scorecard

As an Arctic Ambassador with PBI, we often facilitate research projects like the Body Condition Project that help us better understand and conserve polar bears. Last week, Marissa Krouse from PBI came to the Zoo to take 3-D photographic images of our female polar bear, Berit. The images will be compared to physical measurements we take of Berit while she’s under anesthesia in two weeks. This information will be used to improve the ability to assess the body condition of wild bears.

Marissa Krouse shoots photos of Berit

Marissa Krouse shoots photos of Berit

March 9, 2016   No Comments

Say Cheese! Plant Movement Revealed Through Time-Lapse Photography

The Plant Division at CREW is now using time-lapse photography to capture the growth of plants in vitro. Using a digital SLR camera, we program the camera to take a photograph of the plants every 30 minutes.

Camera set up for time lapse photography

Camera set up for time lapse photography

In general, it takes about two months before the test tube plants need to be subcultured onto fresh media. Now we can condense weeks of growth images into a 1-minute video. Watch the awned meadowbeauty (Rhexia aristosa), a flowering perennial from the Eastern United States,grow!

We initially observed the plants responding to the daily 16-hour light/8-hour dark cycle in the growth chamber. The leaves of the plants appear to “pulse” upward as the light automatically turns on each morning. The “sleep movements” of plants are well documented in terrestrial settings, but until now we had not observed them in plants grown in vitro at CREW. Time-lapse photography has also been a useful tool in comparing different types of media. We photograph a single species on different media to detect changes in growth patterns depending on the medium.

To date we have completed time-lapse videos of three species. The goal is to create a video for every species in the growth chamber. Since a single sequence can take up to six weeks to complete, we have our work cut out for us to create videos for the 35 to 50 species in the growth chamber!

(Reprinted from the Fall 2015 CREW Review)

March 2, 2016   No Comments