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Lion Keeper’s Blog: “Meanwhile, Across the Hall…”

We’ve gotten a lot of questions about John’s role now that the cubs are here. Here’s some important background information and a quick update to fill you in on the proud new papa!

Ever since he came to live at the Cincinnati Zoo, John’s keepers immediately recognized his penchant for routine. Consistency seemed to be the key to success in many aspects of John’s life. In training and developing his comfort level on exhibit, we found that if we kept things predictable and the same, day after day, John seemed to thrive.

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But it goes without saying that the biggest impact on John’s life in Cincinnati came in the form of a sassy young lioness from the St. Louis Zoo. Ever since the two were introduced back on April 30th of this year, John has been enamored with Imani. Always the more codependent of the two, John never let Imani out of his sight, but always respected her need for a little space. He could usually be found laying in her immediate vicinity and staring in her general direction. If keepers ever separated the two (either for training sessions or to give Imani a little “alone time”), John would call out to her and search the exhibit for his missing companion.

Never fond of being on his own, John’s affinity for Imani presented a potential problem once we suspected that Imani might be pregnant. In the wild, when female lionesses are about to give birth, they will usually remove themselves from the pride in order to have their cubs in a more private and secluded area. Often the female and her cubs will not rejoin the pride until the cubs are between 6 and 8 weeks old. We knew that as the time came near, Imani would need to be separated from John in order for her to feel she had the privacy and seclusion she would need during that time. For his keepers, the thought of disrupting John’s routine and keeping him separated from Imani for any length of time was disheartening.

Would John’s instincts kick in? How would he handle the separation and break in routine? Keepers had no way of knowing how John would react to all the changes on the horizon, so we began planning and prepping several months in advance to help John to be as happy and content as possible once the cubs arrived.

Back in August, when we first suspected that Imani might be pregnant, we began a “desensitization” process with John. We had to help John to become confident and content in Imani’s absence so that when the cubs arrived, the separation wouldn’t be so traumatic for him. We utilized a number of training techniques to help us accomplish our goal. We started out small, separating John and Imani for short amounts of time (lasting 15 minutes at first and working our way up to a few hours). At first the lions were only separated by a mesh door (“Oh good, she’s right there! I can still see her!”). Then we worked our way up to a solid door between the two (“Hmm… I can still smell her and hear her. Imani must not be far away.”) Next we worked on keeping one lion inside and shifting one out on exhibit. The final step was housing John in his “Daddy Quarters” across the hall from Imani’s “Birthing/Denning Area” overnight.

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Each time that we separated John from Imani, we always paired the separation with something positive that John loved. We would make sure he had his favorite foods (guinea pigs and rabbits!), his favorite toys (his “Weeble” toy and his mini-keg), or his favorite smells (green tea and elephant toe-nail clippings!) to keep his mind and body occupied. By pairing the separations with all of these really positive things, we were able to help John cope with the change in routine and even develop his independence! Before long, John began to understand that being alone wasn’t such a bad thing, and he would always see Imani again soon.

As any father can attest to, something happens when you become a dad. The life you once knew ceases to exist, and whether you like it or not, your progeny become the focus of the world. The same has been true for John ever since the evening of November 13th.

That night, John sat across the hall staring intently in the direction of Imani’s birthing den. The majority of the front of Imani’s den had been covered (so that she could feel secure), but a small window was left nearest John’s enclosure so that she could peek out. And if John laid in just the right spot in his enclosure and tilted his head at just the right angle, he could catch glimpses of Imani inside. Thanks to additional surveillance cameras mounted inside the lion building, keepers were able to observe John as well as Imani from a remote location. On that night, John sat quietly across the hall with his paws folded in front of him and watched and listened to the birth of his cubs.

John has been absolutely stellar ever since. He sits and stares in the direction of Imani and the cubs for most of his waking hours, and he sleeps in the enclosure nearest his new family. He definitely seems aware that something important and life-changing has happened, but it’s difficult to say whether or not he understands he’s a dad. He seems to instinctively understand that his role at this time is to just stay across the hall and be calm and quiet for a while. On the warmer days, we’ve been able to shift John on exhibit for a few hours so that he can get some sunshine and exercise, but he always comes running back inside to make sure Imani and the cubs are right where he left them.

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Keepers are providing John with all of his favorite things as he waits patiently across the hall to meet his family. We even sit down next to the mesh of his cage and just spend time near him and talking to him. At times he’s seemed a little bit jealous of all the attention the keepers are giving Imani and the cubs, but he’s doing his best to be supportive and low-maintenance.

Introducing the cubs to John will be a process similar to Imani and John’s first introductions. We will start out slowly. John will likely be moved into one of the neighboring enclosures on the same side of the hall as Imani and the cubs. Next we’ll set up the mesh “howdy” doors so that John can see the cubs and the cubs can see John with a safety barrier between them. Once John, Imani and the cubs seem comfortable with each other, we’ll open the howdy doors and keepers will supervise their first interactions. If all goes well, we’ll gradually increase the amount of time that John gets to spend with the cubs until eventually the whole pride will be living together full-time!

Before the introduction process starts, we will need to wait until the cubs are much bigger and stronger.  As always, a lot of the decision-making will be based on Imani’s comfort level, but if all goes according to plan, you will likely be able to see the whole family of 5 out on exhibit together this spring!

November 26, 2014   13 Comments

Animal Care Internship Program

So you want to be a zookeeper.

Fall 2014 interns hanging out with Tommy the cheetah.

Fall 2014 interns hanging out with Tommy the cheetah.

Have you always wanted to work with animals?  Do you have a passion for conservation?  If the answers are yes, then you are well on your way.  As with many careers these days, job-seeking in the zoo world has become very competitive.  It is sometimes particularly hard to get experience working with animals.  In addition, many positions require a bachelor’s degree in Zoology, Biology, or a related field of study.  The best way to get experience is to apply for an internship with animals.

The Cincinnati Zoo has recently re-vamped our animal care internship program.  The traditional internship has been reinvented as the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden Animal Keeping Training Course.  The training course lasts 16-weeks (40 hours per week unpaid, un-benefited) and occurs Summer, Fall, and Winter.  The positions encompass the education of skilled professional and technical work in the routine daily care of assigned animals, enclosures and related facilities within a particular animal department.

Summer intern Jenny training a Savanna Monitor.

Summer intern Jenny training a Savanna Monitor.

Through goals set by interns and staff, each intern follows a curriculum designed to provide a basic skill set and experience for becoming an animal keeper in an AZA institution.  Each week a new topic is presented and discussed.  Topics include (but aren’t limited to) basic husbandry, operant conditioning, enrichment, nutrition, veterinary care, public speaking and presentations, green practices and conservation, and job-seeking/interview skills.  Interns are responsible for completing 4 separate projects related directly to the animals they will be caring for.  Mid-session and final reviews are conducted in order to provide each intern with constructive feedback about their contribution to the internship.

If you think this internship matches your goals in life, you will need to meet the following requirements in order to apply: 1) Current college junior or senior working toward an animal related degree, Biology, Zoology etc.; or within one year of graduation with a related degree. 2) Demonstrate commitment to working with wildlife in a zoo setting. 3) Comfortable working with a diverse collection encompassing all classes of animals.

As testament to the strength of this training course, one of our past interns gave us this feedback: “This internship has definitely been one of the best experiences of my life!  I have learned so much thanks to the generosity and time of others.  All of the topics covered facilitated my professional growth and has solidified my desire to be a zookeeper.  This internship, with its well-developed curriculum should set the bar for internships in zoos across the country.”  Wow!  What an amazing compliment.  However, we will never rest on our laurels, continuing always to improve and modify the content in order to provide the best experience possible.

Summer intern Amanda with her enrichment project, the “Snake Slalom.”

Summer intern Amanda with her enrichment project, the “Snake Slalom.”

So if you have the desire, educational background, and commitment to work with animals in a zoo setting, apply for the Zoo’s Animal Keeping Training Course.  We are currently accepting applications for the winter section.  Check out www.cincinnatizoo.org/about-us/job-opportunities/ for more information and to apply.  This is an amazing opportunity to get animal care experience at a world class institution!

November 25, 2014   No Comments

Meet Some New Faces at CREW

Welcoming Two New Post-Doctoral Fellows

Two new post-doctoral fellows, Dr. Lindsey Vansandt and Dr. Anne-Catherine Vanhove, were welcomed to CREW in the fall of 2014.

With funding support from the Joanie Bernard Foundation, Dr. Vansandt will be working with Dr. Bill Swanson, CREW’s Director of Animal Research. Dr. Vansandt obtained her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Missouri and her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Maryland (in collaboration with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute). Her Ph.D. studies focused on characterization and propagation of spermatogonial stem cells in domestic cats as a model for conserving endangered cat species. Dr. Vansandt also has experience working in veterinary emergency services. At CREW, she will be conducting studies to improve the health and welfare of feral and shelter cats as well as helping to apply oviductal AI for propagation of endangered felids.

Lindsey Vansandt, DVM

Lindsey Vansandt, DVM

With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Dr. Vanhove will be evaluating survival of plant samples in CREW’s Frozen Garden under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Pence, Director of Plant Research. Dr. Vanhove will complete the second phase of the IMLS project, focusing primarily on the survival of shoot tips and gametophytes after long-term storage in liquid nitrogen. She recently received her Ph.D. from the Division of Crop Biotechnics, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Leuven, Belgium. Her thesis work with meristem culture, stress physiology, and cryopreservation makes her well suited for the IMLS project.

Anne-Catherine Vanhove

Anne-Catherine Vanhove

The University of Cincinnati/Cincinnati Zoo Connection

CREW has had a long-standing collaborative relationship with the University of Cincinnati’s (UC) Department of Biological Sciences, but today it is strengthened by two promising young scientists who split their time between CREW and UC. Corrina DeLorenzo and Megan Philpott are both enrolled in UC’s Ph.D. program under Drs. Ken Petren and Theresa Culley, respectively, but they are conducting much of their dissertation research at CREW.

Corrina earned her bachelor’s degree at Miami University, with a double major in Zoology and Environmental Science. As an undergraduate, she became involved in research evaluating the population genetics of the Italian wall lizard or “Lazarus lizard” in the Cincinnati area. After graduating, Corrina was accepted to CREW’s summer internship program, working with Dr. Erin Curry on the Polar Bear Signature Project. She was recruited into UC’s graduate program in January 2014. Since starting her Ph.D. research, Corrina has identified multiple antibodies that detect specific proteins in polar bear feces in an effort to develop a polar bear pregnancy test.

Corrina DeLorenzo

Corrina DeLorenzo

Megan received her bachelor’s degree from UC in Biology and was also an intern at the Cincinnati Museum Center, managing the Museum’s Philippine Bird Genetics project. Her Ph.D. research is part of the Plant Lab’s IMLS funded project to evaluate samples that have been stored for years in CREW’s CryoBioBank for genetic changes that might have occurred over time. In April, Megan was awarded the Botanical Society of America’s Public Policy award to attend Congressional Visits Day on Capitol Hill. There, she learned about communicating science to policy makers and met with the offices of Ohio Senators and Representatives to request their support for increased federal funding of scientific research, using CREW’s research as an example of the importance of federal funding and support. (Students supported by the UC Department of Biological Sciences, Institute of Museum and Library Services and CREW Eisenberg Fellowship.)

Megan Philpott

Megan Philpott

P&G Wildlife Conservation Scholars

In 2011, CREW established a partnership with the Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to train veterinary students in conservation sciences with funding support from Procter & Gamble Pet Care. This past summer, two OSU veterinary students, Kelly Vollman and JaCi Johnson, were selected as P&G Wildlife Conservation Scholars.

Kelly worked with Dr. Monica Stoops analyzing urinary testosterone and glucocorticoid concentrations to determine if the pattern of excretion could be used to predict gender, parturition date and assess fetal viability during Indian rhino gestation. Kelly analyzed urine samples collected throughout seven Indian rhino pregnancies that resulted in three male and four female calves. Six of the pregnancies ended with the birth of live calves, whereas one pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, a relatively common occurrence in this rhino species. By learning more about the endocrinology of pregnancy, results from Kelly’s study will help establish physiological markers to improve pregnancy outcome in this species.

Kelly Vollman

Kelly Vollman

JaCi worked with Dr. Bill Swanson to investigate cat sperm vitrification as an alternative to standard slow freezing methods. Vitrification involves ultra-rapid cooling to avoid ice crystal formation and form a “glass” instead. For this study, JaCi collected semen from domestic cats (and one ocelot) and compared vitrification in a sucrose solution, with direct pelleting in liquid nitrogen, to slow freezing with glycerol in straws over liquid nitrogen vapor. Post-thaw sperm motility and acrosome status were similar between methods and 25% of domestic cat oocytes were fertilized following insemination with vitrified
sperm. This simplified approach to cat semen preservation may be particularly useful for field biologists working with felids in the wild.

JaCi Johnson

JaCi Johnson

November 21, 2014   No Comments