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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

Saving Ocelots in Texas: Ocelot Conservation Festival

Guest blogger, Colleen Nissen, Cat Ambassador Program Trainer:

Every year in March brings the Ocelot Conservation Festival – a weekend dedicated to education and awareness for the only remaining population of ocelots in the United States. The Zoo’s ambassador ocelot, Sihil (pronounced like the letters C-L), took her annual road trip to South Texas, with her trainers in tow, to be the star of the weekend’s festivities!

Sihil enjoying a walk on Cactus Creek Ranch

Sihil enjoying a walk on Cactus Creek Ranch

Hosted at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX, the Ocelot Conservation Festival is coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) & the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. It aims to inspire locals to learn about and become involved in the efforts to protect  native ocelot populations.

You see, the very southern tip of Texas is a very special place. It is the only remaining area in the United States where ocelots can still be found. Once spanning throughout Texas and ranging as far as Louisiana and Arkansas, the ocelot’s habitat has decreased by an estimated 95%. The U.S. ocelot population has declined sharply as well, leaving only about 80 ocelots to be found in Texas, many of which  live on only two protected wildlife refuges (Laguna Atascosa and Lower Rio Grande Valley). Ocelots are listed as federally endangered and in desperate need of help, which is why, since 2007, Sihil and her Cat Ambassador Trainers have made the long journey down to help draw in crowds to hear these important messages.

Past and present range of the ocelot in the United States

Past and present range of the ocelot in the United States

So how does one travel with an ocelot? Sihil, who is nearing 16 years old, has been an ambassador for her species her whole life. This means she is a seasoned professional at things like car rides, leashed walks, public programming, and displaying trained natural behaviors. She always works closely with her trainers, so a long van ride is no problem for her; in fact, she really seems to enjoy it! Our van is equipped with an XXL traveling crate, propped up so that she is eye level with the windows. She alternates between casually watching the passing cars and buildings, taking cat naps (most cats, even exotics, sleep or rest for up to 16 hours a day), and talking (she chatters, which sounds a lot like a low guttural “maaaawr” and often vocalizes to us more when we “maaawr” back to her) to us while we drive. We give her snacks, puzzle feeders, and toys to keep her occupied as well. When we stop for the evening, she even stays in her crate with us in an animal-friendly motel. (Note: While Sihil is trained as an ambassador ocelot, she, nor any wild cat, would make a good pet.)

Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Show van and map showing travel route

Cincinnati Zoo’s Cat Show van and map showing travel route

Once we arrive in Texas, we are welcomed by Mary Jo Bogotto at the Cactus Creek Ranch. Sihil starts and ends her days here with a leisurely walk on ranch grounds, enjoying the March breeze in Texas and marking some territory (aka: doing her business).

What are we doing in Texas? We have a busy schedule once we arrive in Texas. Sihil is a very popular ocelot, after all. As an ambassador ocelot, she is comfortable in front of new groups and spaces and often shows spectators natural behaviors, such as climbing up, down, and upside down on a prop pole (an adaptation that ocelots are exceptionally good at).  This year, alongside FWS, we made appearances at a local library, border patrol, and the local university (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley) on Friday. Sihil followed an informative presentation about ocelot identification and conservation efforts by FWS. Saturday was the official festival day, which was hosted by the Gladys Porter Zoo. It was an ocelot lover’s dream day: a fun run 5k fundraiser to kick off the festivities, information stations staffed by Laguna Atascosa volunteers, ocelot-themed crafts, and of course, an opportunity to see Sihil in action. The ability to be so close to such an elusive cat draws in room-filling crowds whereever we are presenting.  Seeing Sihil is a unique opportunity for those who have never seen an ocelot before, despite living in such close proximity to a wild population. Being able to learn about and observe a live ocelot helps this community in South Texas feel a connection with an animal that they have the opportunity to impact in such a large way.

Trainer Colleen Nissen demonstrates the ocelot’s climbing abilities with Sihil during the Ocelot Conservation Festival

Trainer Colleen Nissen demonstrates the ocelot’s climbing abilities with Sihil during the Ocelot Conservation Festival

Trainer Alicia Sampson provides information about ocelots and fields questions from visitors

Trainer Alicia Sampson provides information about ocelots and fields questions from visitors

Why border patrol? After reading through our itinerary, you might be wondering why we presented at border patrol. These men and women are often in areas where ocelots roam, places where most people do not have access. Border patrol officers can be a valuable resource in identifying and reporting ocelots for range data and population estimates. Giving them the information to correctly ID an ocelot versus a bobcat (a very similar looking small cat that shares the same range) can mean more accurate reporting. Showing the officers the correct way to report an ocelot as well as the importance of doing so is another advantage of presenting with Sihil. And of course, isn’t it great when our government institutions work together for conservation!

Sihil visits Harlingen Border Patrol to inform officers and promote sighting reports (Photo: Kelly Magnuson)

Sihil visits Harlingen Border Patrol to inform officers and promote sighting reports (Photo: Kelly Magnuson)

Why all this fuss over a little ocelot? Ocelots are awesome (albeit, we are a little biased) and they are in trouble, especially in South Texas, but that is not the only reason to focus on this species. Aside from all of the positive education and initiation of change for the ocelot, the Ocelot Conservation Festival is about saving an entire ecosystem of plants and animals. The ocelot is what we like to refer to as charismatic megafauna, which is an animal species that has widespread appeal. To achieve conservation and community goals, we highlight the ocelot as the “face” of the South Texas scrub habitat (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t love that face?), and in protecting the ocelot, we are helping to save hundreds of other species of flora and fauna who also share their space.

Sihil shows off her spots (Photo: Kelly Magnuson)

Sihil shows off her spots (Photo: Kelly Magnuson)

What can you do to help the ocelot? A lot! First of all, by supporting the Zoo, you are enabling us to participate in conservation events like the Ocelot Festival. You can also directly support ocelot research and conservation by Adopting an Ocelot through Friends of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. And later this May, we invite you to come out to the annual Cinco de Gato fundraiser held by the Cincinnati chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers. Funds raised support FWS ocelot conservation efforts. Stay tuned for more details on the event to come soon.

March 18, 2016   3 Comments

Six Ways the Zoo Can Stimulate Your Kids’ Interest in Math

Guest blogger: Education Intern, Kristina Meek

numbersLike any subject, math has its fans and its detractors. If your child is one of the latter, you might struggle to find ways to make math interesting. Since kids get excited about animals in general, and the Zoo, in particular, a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo could help. Here are a few tips to get you started. With a little creative thinking, you can probably come up with a few ideas of your own!

  1. Start with counting. Visit an exhibit and ask your child, how many lemurs do you see? How many fennec foxes? How many baby animals and how many adults? Can you add the two numbers together?

    How many lemurs can you count?

    How many lemurs can you count?

  2. Make up sneaky word problems. Throughout the Zoo, and on our website, you’ll find fun facts about animals. When you encounter numbers, use them as a spark for a simple word problem. For example: An Asian elephant can consume around 100 pounds of food per day. How much food do the Cincinnati Zoo’s four elephants, together, consume in a day? A month? A year?
  3. Spot shapes. Animal bodies display a variety of shapes, which are the foundation for geometry. Some cats’ ears are triangles while others are circles. One animal may have a rectangular body, another an oval one. Ask your child to point out what shapes he or she notices.
  4. Check out the leaf-cutting ants. At the Zoo’s interactive leaf-cutting ant exhibit, inside World of the Insect, you can watch real ants haul leaves back to their nest — right over your head! Your child can stand at the colorful console to time the ants’ progress, count them, and make predictions about their behavior. They won’t even notice they’re using math.

    Leaf-cutting ant (Photo: David Jenike)

    Leaf-cutting ant (Photo: David Jenike)

  5. Manage money. When you visit the Zoo, you might stop for lunch at one of our restaurants or choose a souvenir from the Zoo Shop. If you’re using cash, and your child is the appropriate age, ask him or her to pay at the register. Regardless of your payment method, kids can help do calculations like how much you’ll save with an item that’s on sale or by using a coupon.
  6. Make connections. Visiting the Zoo might inspire your child to pursue a career in a field like botany, biology, or environmental science. Let him or her know that studying math can open possibilities along that path. Math is the “language” used in science, so it’s critical to study subjects like algebra, calculus, and statistics.

The benefits of bringing your children to the Zoo sure are adding up. Enjoy!

 

March 16, 2016   3 Comments