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Asha the Gorilla’s Expected “Little” Bundle of Joy is “Big” Part of a Much Larger Picture.

The Cincinnati Zoo Primate Department provides excellent care for our extended family of about 25 primate species, which includes approximately 70 individuals. A lot of effort goes into their care and proper management. In addition to the basic nutritionally balanced diet, exemplary husbandry, and dynamic environmental enrichment, a comprehensive operant conditioning (OC) program has been in place for more than ten years.  Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement refers to a method of training that incorporates building a trusting relationship with the animals along with a systemic communication technique that allows keepers to cooperatively shape desired behaviors needed from them to make the animals’ lives better.

Primate Department keepers, Stephanie Sauer, Benny Smith and Grace Meloy watch on as keeper/ trainer Ashley Ashcraft places an ultrasound wand to Asha’s abdomen while reinforcing her with grapes.  Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, monitors the images.

Primate Department keepers, Stephanie Sauer, Benny Smith and Grace Meloy watch on as keeper/ trainer Ashley Ashcraft places an ultrasound wand to Asha’s abdomen while reinforcing her with grapes. Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, monitors the images.

For instance through OC training, the Zoo’s Western-lowland gorillas have numerous behaviors that they will offer to aid in evaluating health.  The gorillas will present their hands, feet, ears, bellies, backs, knees, shoulders, open their mouths, and stick out their tongues, all on cue followed by a positive reinforcement, which is usually a favorite food item like grapes.  OC is engaging and mentally stimulating for the gorillas and allows keepers and vets the opportunity to do some important work with them.  The Zoo’s gorillas will also allow cardiac ultrasound imaging work to be done, all voluntarily, while awake, through a protective mesh safely separating the keepers and gorillas. Training techniques are also used to encourage natural behaviors and help form a cohesive social dynamic within the family group.

Primate Keeper, Grace Meloy, and Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, discuss fetal ultrasound images from Asha the gorilla.

Primate Keeper, Grace Meloy, and Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Erin Curry, discuss fetal ultrasound images from Asha the gorilla.

Recently, we initiated some maternal management behavior training with an expecting gorilla named “Asha”.  One of our primary goals was to do regular fetal ultrasounds throughout the pregnancy.  Early on in the pregnancy, primate keeper Ashley Ashcraft  worked as the primary trainer for this.  As with most of the OC work, the zoo’s wonderful vet techs, Jenny Kroll and Amy Long, were also included to assist with the monitoring, along with additional help from the Zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) scientists. Throughout Asha’s gestation we have been able to follow along with fetal development and are still doing ultrasounds once or twice a week as we come down to parturition.  At this point, the fetus is a little too big to see fully on ultrasound but we clearly see a good heartbeat and movement.  Asha, understandably, rests a lot and eats like a horse.  She is still well within the predicted birth period so all is looking good. Gorillas have a gestation period of 250 to 280 days.

Asha will be a first-time mom but has great history with younger siblings, from growing up in Brownsville, Texas.  She has also had the chance to watch little Gladys, with her surrogate mother “Mlinzi”, for additional lessons. The Zoo’s team of volunteer observers are also watching Asha overnight, by remote monitor, just to be extra safe.  The family group Asha currently lives with is very cohesive and lead by the great silverback, named “Jomo,” who is also very good with little ones.

Jomo (formally of the Toronto Zoo) and Asha, along with approximately 360 other gorillas in about 50 zoos, are managed cooperatively through something called a Species Survival Plan(SSP) under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).   The SSP carefully tracks the genetics of each gorilla, gorilla personalities and facilities, and with critical input from each zoo, develops a comprehensive Masterplan every two years that outlines recommended transfers for breeding, or to help social situations.  Zoos are very altruistic in how they view gorillas and work hard together for the betterment of the overall big picture management.

So, thanks to great team work on the national level, as well as right here at the Cincinnati Zoo, we are prepared and patiently awaiting the birth of Asha’s baby.  Everyone is excited and very hopeful all will continue to go smoothly as we come down to the end.  Stay tuned……

July 31, 2014   1 Comment

Saving Red Pandas

Co-written by Shasta Bray and Crissi Lanier

What is this frosty-faced beauty of ringed tail and rust-colored fur? A raccoon? A bear? Actually, the red panda is neither of these and is indeed a PANDA!  It is its own species unrelated to the others. This beautiful auburn-colored mammal is native to Central Asia and is designed for a life in the trees. Pandas are expert climbers with sharp claws and hair on the bottom of their feet that keeps them from slipping. They are great jumpers, too, able to jump up to five feet in one leap.

Check out the claws on one of our male pandas, Rover.

Check out the claws on one of our male pandas, Rover. (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Currently, the Zoo is home to six red pandas – three males named Homer, Rover and Toby and three females named LiWu, Bailey and Lin.  Lin, daughter of Bailey and Toby, is the youngest and recently celebrated her first birthday on June 16th, which she shares with Rover who turned nine years old.

Lin has small white tufts sticking out of the bottoms of her ears, making her easy to identify among our pandas. (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Lin has small white tufts sticking out of the bottoms of her ears, making her easy to identify among our pandas. (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

We breed our pandas in accordance with the Red Panda Species Survival Plan (SSP) managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The SSP keeps a studbook of all the red pandas in North American zoos, determines which animals should be mated, and develops long-term research and management strategies for the species. Our very own Zoo Registrar, Mary Noell, is the Program Leader for the studbook.

Baby Lin soon after she was born

Baby Lin soon after she was born

The red panda exhibit is just beyond the Children’s Zoo entrance in the center of the Zoo. Two yards sit side-by-side so make sure to look on both sides, especially high up in the trees where they spend much of their time hanging out. Red pandas tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, and at the Zoo, during the 2:15pm Red Panda Animal Encounter when they get yummy treats like apples and other fruits. In the wild, they eat mostly young tender bamboo shoots and leaves, as well as some grasses, roots and fruits.

Lin receives treats from her keeper, Lissa, during an Animal Encounter (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Lin receives treats from her keeper, Lissa, during an Animal Encounter (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

Want to meet our pandas up close and personal? Sign up for an Endangered Excursion where you’ll get to watch our talented red pandas create a one-of-a-kind canvas painting for you to take home and enjoy. That’s right, our pandas are painters! And you can purchase these unique masterpieces in the Zoo gift shop as well. Here’s a sneak peek of LiWu painting.

Red pandas are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild. Proceeds from the Endangered Excursions and the sales of red panda paintings support the Red Panda Network’s efforts to protect red pandas and their bamboo forests in the wild through the education and empowerment of local communities. The Red Panda Network’s immediate goal is the creation of Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung Red Panda Protected Forest, located in Eastern Nepal, which will be the world’s first protected area dedicated to red panda.Red Panda Network

Next time you’re at the Zoo, be sure to stop by and visit our fuzzy faces!

See you soon, says Rover! (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

See you soon, says Rover! (Photo: Crissi Lanier)

July 31, 2014   1 Comment

Celebrate International Tiger Day and Meet our Malayan Tigers

July 29 is International Tiger Day and we invite you to come celebrate with us at the Malayan tiger exhibit in Cat Canyon. We will have special activities and presentations occurring throughout the day from 10:00am to 3:00pm, including opportunities to learn about tigers and conservation from our zookeepers and interpretive staff.

Taj and Who-Dey lounging in the sun (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Taj and Who-Dey lounging in the sun (Photo: Michelle Curley)

Meet our Malayan tiger brothers, Taj and Who-Dey! When Cat Canyon opened in 2012, the Zoo teamed up with the Cincinnati Bengals to help conserve these beautiful animals. Who-Dey was named by Cincinnati Bengals fans and Taj was named by Zoo supporters. The brothers, who turn seven on July 30, often come up close to the viewing glass at their exhibit. They enjoy relaxing in the pool, especially on sunny days, and getting meaty treats from their keepers during daily presentations for the public.

Through the glass (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Through the glass (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Taj and Who-Dey lounging in the pool (Photo: Kathy Newton)

Taj and Who-Dey lounging in the pool (Photo: Kathy Newton)

The Malayan tiger is one of the smallest of the six tiger subspecies, ranging from about 220 pounds to 400 pounds. Native to Malaysia and southern Thailand, it preys on deer, wild pigs and cattle, and has been known to travel up to 20 miles in search of prey. The orange-and-black stripes provide excellent camouflage in the forests where they live. Tigers also have white spots on the back of their ears, which are surrounded by black fur and give the appearance of false eyes.  This is another form of camouflage, giving the impression that they are staring right at potential intruders when its back is turned.

White spots on back of tiger's eyes

White spots on back of tiger’s eyes

The Zoo is committed to ensuring the survival of endangered tigers of which there are fewer than 3,200 remaining in the wild. Over the next three years, we have pledged to support the tiger conservation efforts of Panthera. Panthera is the leading international wild cat conservation organization with a mission to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. 

Panthera logo

To ensure the tiger’s survival, Panthera works across Asia with numerous partners to end the poaching of tigers for the illegal wildlife trade, prevent tiger deaths due to conflict with humans and livestock, and protect tiger prey species and habitat. Through their program, Tigers Forever, Panthera works to protect and secure key tiger populations and ensure connectivity between sites so that tigers can live long into the future.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, installs a camera trap in Bhutan. (Photo: Steve Winter)

“When it comes to saving tigers, nobody gets results like Dr. Alan Rabinowitz and his team at Panthera. It is a crying shame that tigers are being illegally poached for their skin and bones, but by inspiring our visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo and partnering with Panthera, we remain dedicated to our belief that there is still room in this world for great cats.” – Thane Maynard, Cincinnati Zoo Director

Taj and Who-Dey hope to see you at the Zoo on International Tiger Day!

July 27, 2014   No Comments