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Zoo Educator Heading to the Galapagos as a 2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Fellow

I am excited to announce that I’ve been selected as a 2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Every year, K-12 educators (formal and informal) are encouraged to apply for this professional development opportunity that allows them to bring immersive geographic learning experiences back to their classrooms and communities. Last year, my colleague in the Zoo’s Education Department, Sarah Navarro, was a Fellow and traveled to the Canadian Maritimes. This year, it’s my turn.  I am one of 35 educators from the United States and Canada to receive this honor this year in recognition of my commitment to geographic education here at the Zoo (out of a pool of 2,700 applicants). Read about all of the Fellows here.

2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows  (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

2015 National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellows (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

In September, I will embark on a Lindblad voyage for one-of-a-kind field experience, accompanied by Lindblad-National Geographic expedition experts. I will be traveling on a 10-day expedition aboard the National Geographic Endeavour to the Galapagos, and I couldn’t be more excited!

National Geographic Endeavour sailing in the Galapagos (Photo: Michael S. Nolan)

National Geographic Endeavour sailing in the Galapagos (Photo: Michael S. Nolan)

The Galapagos is a unique ecosystem with an equally compelling history. I’ve read (and will continue to until I embark) about the region’s geology, ecology, wildlife and human history, but travelling to the actual place will really bring those ideas to life. I’m keenly interested in understanding how all the biotic and abiotic components interact with each other to provide a big picture of the region as well as learning how each component is designed to survive in this place. I’m also very curious to learn about conservation on the islands.

Snorkel with Galapagos sea lions? I'm in! (Photo: Michael S Nolan)

Snorkel with Galapagos sea lions? I’m in! (Photo: Michael S Nolan)

During the expedition, I expect to build my knowledge through first-hand experiences such as hiking and snorkeling as well as from interactions with the Expeditions staff and fellow travelers. I’m particularly looking forward to a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about their tortoise conservation efforts. I plan to keep a detailed journal as well as take a LOT of photos.

This could be me in September, taking pictures of giant tortoises! (Photo: Walt Denson)

This could be me in September, taking pictures of giant tortoises! (Photo: Walt Denson)

My primary responsibility here at the Zoo is to plan and create interpretive exhibits and experiences that connect people to nature and inspire them to respect and conserve it. This expedition will provide me with new and exciting first-hand knowledge of the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands that I can incorporate into authentic learning experiences for guests, particularly at our Galapagos tortoise and bird exhibits.

On April 15, another of the Fellows from Cincinnati, Dawnetta Hayes, and I were invited to share our news on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition with Mark Heyne. That was a new experience for me, too! You can listen to the podcast here.

Pre-voyage interview with Mark Heyne on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition (Photo: Brian Jorg)

Pre-voyage interview with Mark Heyne on WVXU’s Cincinnati Edition (Photo: Brian Jorg)

Prior to our expeditions, all 35 of the Fellows traveled to National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in April to participate in hands-on workshops covering photography and outreach planning. We had the opportunity to meet Lindblad Expeditions’ naturalists and National Geographic staff as well as get to know each other and several of the previous year’s Fellows.

Here I am at National Geographic headquarters in D.C.

Here I am at National Geographic headquarters in D.C.

This year marks the ninth year of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program, established to honor former National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor’s lifetime commitment to geographic education. The program began with two Fellows in 2007 and has grown each year. The expeditions were donated in perpetuity to the National Geographic Society by Sven-Olof Lindblad and Lindblad Expeditions to mark Grosvenor’s 75th birthday in 2006 and to honor his service to enhancing and improving geographic education across the United States. (Additional support for the 2015 program is provided by Google and private funders.)

Sven-Olof Lindblad actually gave a presentation here at the Zoo in May as part of our Barrows Conservation Lecture Series, and I was very happy to connect with him then. He gave a fantastic talk about the importance of travel and direct experiences to opening people’s eyes and minds and hearts to the wonder of our natural world and the interconnections between themselves and the people and wildlife of faraway places. Our world is changing and we need to be global citizens to ensure its sustainability.

Former Fellow Sarah Navarro, current Fellow Janet Shedd (from Lexington) and I introduce Sven-Olof Lindblad to Gabriel the potto prior to his presentation.

Former Fellow Sarah Navarro, current Fellow Janet Shedd (from Lexington) and I introduce Sven-Olof Lindblad to Gabriel the potto prior to his presentation.

As the date of my voyage approaches, I’ll be reading and absorbing as much as I can about the Galapagos Islands in preparation, and I will be sure to share my experience through pictures and stories after I return from the expedition in October.

I can't wait to see these blue-footed boobies in action! (Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins)

I can’t wait to see these blue-footed boobies in action! (Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins)

May 29, 2015   3 Comments

African Savannah Line Up – Who’s Who?

It is easy to be distracted by our thirteen new (and adorable) babies in the Africa exhibit, but don’t forget to check out the awesome antelope and birds living in our savannah area! They are all interesting in their own way and below you can find more information and helpful hints on how to identify each one.

Lesser Kudu



Lesser Kudu are a grayish-blue colored antelope with large ears and white stripes going down their sides.   Females do not have horns and are a reddish color.  They are wonderful at blending in with their surroundings and prefer bushy scrubland areas where they stand really still to hide from predators when necessary. They are most active at night, making them nocturnal. They can run up to 60 miles per hour. Male Lesser Kudu are typically solitary, while females will live in small groups of 2 to 3 or with their calves.

Our kudu, Calvin and Hobbes, are often toward the back of the exhibit behind the foliage. Even though they spend parts of their day hiding, they are our most tractable hoofstock and will greet their keepers in hopes of getting yummy treats. Hobbes tends to be the braver and the first to approach his keepers, however he is a pickier eater and will sometimes spit out treats that he is offered. They have physical characteristics that help visitors tell them apart. Calvin is larger, weighing around 155 lbs, with longer eyes stripes and an ear notch in the middle of his left ear between his face and the tip of his ear. Hobbes weighs around 135 lbs, has shorter eye stripes and has an ear notch at the very tip of his left ear.



Conservation Status: Near Threatened

Habitat: Dry, flat, and densely thicketed areas, woodlands

Diet: Twigs, leaves, fruits, grasses

Captive: up to 23 yrs
Wild: 7-8 yrs

Male: 202 – 238 lb
Female: 123 – 154 lb


Ndizi and Hofu

Ndizi and Hofu

Impala are one of the more familiar antelope to most zoo visitors. The males have large horns and beautiful, fawn colored bodies. Females do not grow horns. They are incredible jumpers and can leap about ten feet high and thirty feet in distance in a single bound. In the wild they are typically found in the savannah with short grasses and a water source nearby. Impala adjust their diets according to what is available and therefore are both grazers and browsers.

Our impala came to us with very shy personalities and are slowly, but surely, warming up to us. We have two males, as you can tell by their horns, named Hofu and Ndizi. They can be  difficult to tell apart from far away, but Hofu is a little bit smaller than Ndizi, and Ndizi has black on the inside border of his ears. Out of all of our antelope in the exhibit, the impala are the most likely to be near the moat when the pelicans allow.


Conservation Status: Least threatened

Habitat: Found in savannas, areas of short grass with medium, or dense stands of bush and a permanent water supply

Diet: Grasses, flowers, fruit and foliage of bushes and trees, seed pods

Lifespan: 12-15 years

Weight: 100 – 154 lbs

Thompson’s Gazelle

Jared and Farley

Jared and Farley



Thompson’s gazelle are the most abundant species of gazelle on the African savannah.  Both males and females possess horns, unlike the kudu and impala.  They live in small herds, but are flexible socially and will merge with other herds, especially females.  They have scent glands below their eyes and if you have time to watch them for a while you may see them mark the bushes or browse in the exhibit with a black secretion from those glands.  Males will use this scent to mark their territory. If necessary, Thompson’s gazelle will travel ten miles or more to find water.

We have three male Thompson’s gazelle (aka Tommys). Both males and females of this species have horns. They are the smallest antelope in our exhibit and a lot of the time visitors assume that they are babies. All of our males are young, but they are full grown. They may get a little more muscular and their horns may continue to grow, but overall they will not get much larger. Jared and Farley are new to us this summer. Jared, our largest gazelle, has a crooked and broken horn. It is most likely the result of a fight with another gazelle when he was younger and his horn grew in at an odd angle with the tip missing. Farley is the smallest, with a noticeably smaller tail and horns that form a “Y” or “V”.  Jasiri came to us with the two impala and has been out on exhibit since last year.  His horns are very close together like an “11”. Despite the fact that he is one of the smallest, he tends to be one of the biggest trouble makers.


Conservation Status: Near threatened

Habitat: Savannah

Diet: Grass, herbs, leaves and seeds

Lifespan: 10 to 15 years

Weight: 33 to 77 lbs

**You may see all of our antelope species sparring (hitting their heads and horns together) a lot this season. They are still figuring out who is boss, sometimes having fun, and most often doing what they would naturally do during the spring-which is try to win the rights to breed with females and protect their territory.



Pam and Rose

You can tell the difference between male and female ostrich by the color of their feathers. Males will actually help incubate the eggs throughout the night, so they are black in color to camouflage from predators in the dark. Females are lighter in color and more of grey color to camouflage while incubating the eggs during the day. Ostrich lay the largest eggs in the world and can lay up to eleven of them at a time. They are very heavy birds and, therefore,  cannot fly. Instead, they get around using a powerful forward kick (they cannot kick backwards) and can run up to 40 mph on just two toes!

If you check out the color of our two ostrich you will notice that they are not black, because we have two females-Pam and Rose.  They are a favorite among visitors and keepers.  Pam is a little bit smaller than Rose weighing in at 237 lbs. Rose is a very large female weighing in at 307 lbs! One of our keepers, Dan, is currently training our ostriches to stand still for a blood draw. Rose has already successfully gone through a blood draw procedure, and Pam is participating in the procedure as well, especially because it means she gets her favorite treat-duck food (a nutritionally complete diet made for waterfowl)! It is very helpful for keepers to have animals trained to participate in their own health care.


Conservation Status: Least concerned

Habitat: Savannah

Diet: Seeds, leaves, grasses, roots, insects, and sometimes even carrion

Lifespan: 40-50 years

Weight: 200-350 lbs

East African Crowned Cranes


Kahawia and Kijani

Crowned cranes are interesting looking birds. They have long, thin, golden feathers on top of their heads that give the illusion of wearing a crown.  They will typically live in pairs, but sometimes can be found in large flocks. A breeding pair will lay two to three eggs and then raise the family together for about a year, before they young go off on their own.  They have excellent vision and with their long necks and legs can spot predators from far away. Crowned cranes are the only cranes that can perch in trees, thanks to a very well developed hind toe!

Kahawia and Kijani, our two male cranes, are difficult to distinguish unless you can see their ankle bands. Kahawia’s is brown and Kijani’s is green. They will often approach keepers and take up a little bit too much of our personal space, especially during breeding season. One of their favorite things is when we toss them live crickets and mealworms. They spend a lot of their day looking through the grass for insects and other yummy things to eat. It is fun to see them lying down and getting comfy in the hay that we feed our antelope.


Conservation Status: At risk

Habitat: Wetlands and grasslands

Diet: Grasses, seeds, lizards, insects, and other small animals

Lifespan: Up to 25 years

Weight: 6.5- 9 lbs

Pink-backed Pelicans

Skipper and Gilligan

Skipper and Gilligan

Pink-backed Pelicans can hold up to two gallons of water in their throat pouch at once! They have a hook at the end of their beak to help them grip fish that they scoop up out of the water. They are the smallest of all pelican species and have pink on their backs and rumps that can only be seen when their wings are out.  They breed all year round and can be found nesting in small groups or large colonies of between 20 and 500 pairs!

The Cincinnati Zoo has two males that live in our African Savannah exhibit, where you can typically find them defending their territory along the water’s edge.  Our boys are named Skipper and Gilligan. Skipper has a yellow bracelet on his right leg to help us identify him.  Their favorite fish food is herring.  Even though they typically eat fish, insects, and small amphibians, they have occasionally been spotted catching birds that make the unfortunate decision to sit along the moat!  Next time you visit, check out their fun, cartoonish-looking eyes and enjoy their graceful movements through the water that make them appear to be ice skating.


Conservation Status: Least Concern

Habitat: Slow-moving, fresh water, wetlands

Diet: Fish, small amphibians, insects

Life Span: 30 years

Weight: 12-16 pounds

Lappet-Faced Vultures





Lappet-faced vultures are the largest vulture found in Africa and have the ability to strip the carcass of a small antelope to the bone within 20 minutes!  They have brown feathers and bald heads that can turn red. Just like other vultures they typically eat carrion (dead animals), but uniquely, they sometimes also hunt small mammals and birds!  Smaller scavengers depend on Lappet-faced vultures to break through the tough hides of bigger carcasses. Lappet-faced vultures will even eat the skin and bone of a carcass, which is not typical for other raptors.  They will even stand up to a jackal if it tries to steal their carcass!

We currently have two Lappet-faced vultures, Ogra and Ishtar. Ogra is a female and you can tell her apart from Ishtar because she is bigger and has very few white feathers on her back.  Naturally (being female and all), Ogra is the boss out of our three vultures and chooses to steal the others food rather than eating from the perfectly good plate laid down for her.  Ishtar is male, smaller, and his back is speckled with white feathers. You will often see them with their wings stretched out soaking up the sun.


Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Habitat: Savannah, desert

Diet: Carrion, small mammals and birds

Life Span: Up to 50 years

Weight: 9-19 pounds

Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture



Ruppell’s vultures are able to soar for over 6 hours at high altitudes thanks to their 7.5 to 8.5 foot wingspan.  They can fly over 3 miles in six minutes and will fly as far as 90 miles from their nest in search of food. They have a ring of feathers that goes around the base of their necks and small, white fluffy feathers covering their heads.   The rest of their body is covered in mottled brown and white feathers, with white fluffy feathers on his legs.  Pairs will mate for life and will join large flocks of up to 1,000 breeding pairs.  The females collect sticks and grasses and the males will help build the nests, as well as incubate and feed the chicks.

Ishtar, Bubba & Ogra

Ishtar, Bubba & Ogra

Bubba is our Ruppell’s vulture and my personal favorite bird of the bunch.  He is very inquisitive and loves to get into trouble. As a highly social species, Bubba enjoys the company of Ogra and Ishtar very much, but the love is not necessarily reciprocated.  He tags along wherever they go and entertains himself by playing with branches and browse that he finds in the yard.  If you do not see him hanging out with Ogra and Ishtar, chances are you can find him on the island in the moat. He spent most of his summer last year perched up on the log found on the island, but he now prefers to be wherever his new buddies are.

**Tragically vulture populations are declining quickly due to habitat loss, hunting for trade, as well as the carcasses that they feed on are being poisoned by poachers and farmers. Poachers do not want to be tracked down by rangers after they have killed a large mammal and vultures are a good indicator of where the carcasses can be found, so by poisoning the dead carcass, fewer vultures will come and they have a better chance of getting away. Farmers will sometimes poison large predators such as painted dogs and lions, because they do not want them to kill their livestock, and this is killing vultures by the thousands.


Conservation Status: Endangered

Habitat: Savannah

Diet: Carrion

Life Span: 40 to 50 years

Weight: 15- 20 pounds


May 28, 2015   5 Comments

Dog Log #6 – Tribute to Brahma


Beautiful Brahma

It is with a heavy heart that I write this first part of my blog. Brahma’s sudden and unexpected passing has saddened all of the Africa keepers. He was a very special dog that achieved great things in the short amount of time we were given with him. Brahma’s grumpy old man demeanor (or that’s what it seemed like to me) was balanced out by his exceptional skills as a father and provider. The care he gave Imara and his offspring was amazing to watch and rare for alpha male dogs in the States. During this difficult time, I just personally wanted to thank all of you for the positive thoughts and the kind words that have been expressed to us. The other Africa keepers and I truly appreciate the support.

Brahma and Imara

Brahma and Imara


Brahma guides the pups

Brahma guides the pups

In spite of the short journey we had with Brahma, we still have a long way to go with the 10 beautiful young ones he and Imara created. The future is a bit uncertain at this point. We will manage the pack for the most part the same. Imara has taken this all in stride. The first couple of days after the loss of Brahma, I would catch her looking for him. I think she realizes what has happened, but that she still has a job to do and guiding her puppies into adulthood is her number one priority. Luckily for us, Imara is young and resilient. At about 35 lbs each, the pups are becoming a handful, but so far she is doing a great job. She is definitely still keeping them in line which you will often see on exhibit. Imara is not afraid to teach them a lesson, which is important since she is solo now.

2015-04-08 Imara Pups

Imara leads on

We would not bring in another male at this time. The Species Survival Plan (SSP) for African painted dogs meets this fall and will decide which dogs go (or stay) where. For now, we will continue to enjoy Imara and the pups as they get bigger and bigger. I am secretly hoping one of the boys has been gifted with Brahma’s personality. So come on out and enjoy Brahma’s legacy and watch them change right before our eyes.


May 25, 2015   10 Comments