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Lessons Learned from a Year of Aquaponics: Part 1, How It All Began

By Guest Blogger, Scott Beuerlein, Horticulturist

I have to admit, I took on the aquaponics project with some trepidation. Years back, I had flirted a little with permaculture. On ¾ of an acre of prime Anderson Township suburbia, my wife and I had made a valiant stab at going off the grid. Between a large organic vegetable garden, a mini-orchard, a wood burning stove,  wine-making, maple sugaring, and more, our little homestead of a pair of parents, kids, border collies, cars, and jobs, we made a fairly good go of being self-sufficient. It was a challenge. It was fun. Most of all, it was exhausting. I eventually burned out. We moved on. My restless mind drifted on to other things. Yet, in moments of weakness and nostalgia, I sometimes found myself pining for a more difficult life—the kind that only sustainable home agriculture can provide. Inexplicably, despite knowing what I knew, I was ready for a new challenge. Maybe this was a weird new twist on the old mid-life crisis? So when the aquaponics project presented itself, I was tempted. Really tempted.  But one more thing gave me yet more pause. There were rumors around that all the Zoo higher ups, and all but three of the Zoo lower downs, had what was reported as delusional expectations for this thing. As a consequence, lying awake at night in a cold sweat and thinking about it, the specter of failure loomed large not only as an option, but as a likely and spectacular one. But in the end, with all this in mind, and fully aware that I didn’t have enough time to take this on; I did what I always do and proceeded anyway.

The fellas that helped get the aquaponics system started at the Zoo.

The fellas that helped get the aquaponics system started at the Zoo.

First thing, I sought out experienced, wizened old hands who had been there and done that—the stereotypical weather worn, decrepit souls who had seen it all over many hard years and would recount their pearls of wisdom in anachronistically worded , enigmatic fables, riddles, and parables.  But I quickly learned that no such people exist. Aquaponics is too new. Way too new. The wizened old hands are usually kids who left Americorps two months ago. They smile with cherubic faces, spew enthusiasm, contain not a fiber of cynicism, couldn’t embellish a story to save their lives, and sport names like Josh or Skippy. Moreover, when they recall anything, it always begins with, “Last year…”. The most common phrase in aquaponics circles is: “I was wondering that too.”The second is: “Chad’s parents are out of town. We’re having a party!” It’s not much of an exaggeration to state that everyone is making this up as they go along.  Eventually, I did fall in with a pack of aquaponics geeks who were starting a system along with people from Cincinnati Parks for a Krohn Conservatory exhibit. This group, absurdly old for this sort of thing, consisted of Pete West, a retired engineer who was starting a sustainable agriculture company called Self-Sustaining Enterprises; Designer and Landscaper Adam Wyman of Elements Pro. Kevin Savage, a science teacher from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy:  and Dan Divelbiss, Chief Growing Officer and Founder of Waterfields, LLC, a company growing hydroponic vegetables in Price Hill.  Tracy Fryburger from Cincinnati Parks also generously gave advice and encouragement.

The tremendous help these folks provided simply cannot be over stated. They helped with everything from sourcing of equipment and supplies to testing the waters (literally). They came early. They came often. They returned all my calls, answered my questions , and never charged a dime. These were all genius level guys who showed up with laptops, expensive hand held meters, thick catalogs, thicker glasses, mysterious texts, a buzz word rapport amongst each other, inside jokes, and degrees like “Engineering.” I could’ve been intimidated, but I wasn’t.  My Dad is a genius level engineer of that ilk, and I’ve been smarter than him ever since I can remember. Sure, unlike me, these guys could calculate themselves out of a paper bag, but can they think like a fish? Or a plant? I can. That’s my genius. Ultimately, it turned out those genius guys’ abilities to read technical texts and do math combined with my knowledge and skills from a long, varied, and checkered past walking all manner of plants through the valley of the shadow of death made for a pretty darn good team.

In house, credit must be also given to the Zoo’s crack maintenance staff. Need a bench to put 300 pound tanks of water onto? Give Terry Jackson 4 ½ hours and a pile of stainless steel scrap  and he will build one that will last a thousand years. From our Aquatics Department, David Wardlow knows literally everything. It might take a day or two to find him, because he is in so much demand, but track him down, drop your problem on him, give him a minute or two to ruminate, and, bang, out comes a great solution.  He answered my entire myriad of weird, little pump, filtration, and plumbing questions with surprisingly little cussing. Fia Cifuentes from our Sustainability Program, folks in the Animal Department, and many others also provided support. I’m ashamed to admit that it came as something of a surprise that the Zoo is a ridiculous embarrassment of riches if you’re trying to do something that involves plants, animals, and water. Finally, special recognition must go to all those smiling, alluring, beautiful sirens (and Chad) from our PR Department who pounced upon me one day while I was quietly eating at the café and against every last bit of my better judgment talked me into doing an aquaponics rap video. Pat Story, our video sorcerer, then managed to turn what I was certain was the most unusable footage in video history from a pile of vile into something that almost went viral.

Credit also goes to Chef Brian McCorkell from the Base Camp Café. Since he is always here and never leaves, he took on the role of feeding the fish and checking on the system on a daily basis. Things have gone a lot better and smoother under his ever steady hand.

Chef Brian harvesting basil for the Base Camp Cafe.

Chef Brian harvesting basil for the Base Camp Cafe.

Last but certainly not least, none of this would have been possible were it not for the generosity of The Woodward Family Charity Foundation, which funded the greenhouse and equipment. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is incredibly grateful to them, as are our many guests! One of the most rewarding things about this system has been the high level of interest shown by visitors, and the aquaponics greenhouse has become a popular stop on our ever expanding list of visitor engagement opportunities.

Stay tuned for two more exciting episodes in the near future. You’ll find the next installment, “How It Works In Spite of Everything” especially riveting, and the final chapter “Lessons We Learned” will make you laugh, cry, and build your own system!

July 22, 2014   1 Comment

Another First for CREW: Indian Rhino Posthumously Fathers a Calf

CREW has done it again! We are excited to announce the birth of a female Indian rhino calf produced by artificial insemination (AI) conducted by CREW Reproductive Physiologist, Dr. Monica Stoops, and born on June 5 at the Buffalo Zoo. From a historical standpoint, this is the first offspring for a male rhino who never contributed to the genetics of the Indian rhino population during his lifetime – a major victory for endangered species around the world and a lifetime of work in the making.

Rhino calf Monica

Rhino calf Monica

The father, “Jimmy,” died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2004.  Over the course of those ten years, Jimmy’s sperm was stored at -320°F in CREW’s CryoBioBank™ in Cincinnati, before it was taken to Buffalo, thawed and used in the AI.

Jimmy the Indian Rhino

Jimmy the Indian Rhino

“We are excited to share the news of Tashi’s calf with the world as it demonstrates how collaboration and teamwork among the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) organizations are making fundamental contributions to rhino conservation,” said Dr. Monica Stoops. “It is deeply heartening to know that the Cincinnati Zoo’s beloved male Indian rhino, Jimmy, will live on through this calf and we are proud that CREW’s CryoBioBank™ continues to contribute to this endangered species’ survival.”

“Tashi,” the Buffalo Zoo’s 17-year-old female has previously conceived and successfully given birth through natural breeding in both 2004 and 2008.  Unfortunately, her mate passed away and the Buffalo Zoo’s new male Indian rhino has not yet reached sexual maturity. Because long intervals between pregnancies in female rhinos can result in long-term infertility, keepers at the Buffalo Zoo knew it was critical to get Tashi pregnant again and reached out to Dr. Stoops for her expertise.

In February of 2013, Dr. Stoops worked closely with Buffalo Zoo’s rhino keeper Joe Hauser and veterinarian Dr. Kurt Volle to perform a standing sedation AI procedure on Tashi. Scientifically speaking, by producing offspring from non or under-represented individuals, CREW is helping to ensure a genetically healthy captive population of Indian rhinos exists in the future.  This is a science that could be necessary for thousands of species across the globe as habitat loss, poaching, and population fragmentation (among other reasons) threaten many with extinction.

The Buffalo Zoo staff monitored Tashi’s pregnancy over the 15-16 month gestation period and at 3:30 p.m., on June 5, she gave birth to a healthy female calf, weighing 144 pounds.

Rhino calf Monica,  Lead  Rhino Keeper Joe Hauser, CREW Reproductive Physiologist Dr. Monica Stoops

Rhino calf Monica, Lead Rhino Keeper Joe Hauser, and CREW Reproductive Physiologist Dr. Monica Stoops with CryoBioBank

“Without Dr. Stoops’ dedication to the species, and to the development of AI science, there is no doubt this calf would not be here today,” said Hauser. “She has spent countless hours spear-heading research and technology for Indian rhino conservation and the Buffalo Zoo is excited to acknowledge that dedication and announce that the name of the calf is “Monica.”

Tashi’s calf demonstrates that AI science is a repeatable and valuable tool to help manage the captive Indian rhino population. With only 59 Indian rhinos in captivity in North America and approximately 2,500 remaining in the wild, being able to successfully introduce genetics that are non or under-represented in the population is critical to maintaining the genetic diversity necessary to keep a population healthy and self-sustaining.

“We are always thrilled to welcome a new baby to the Buffalo Zoo, but this birth is particularly exciting because the science involved is critical to saving endangered animals,” said Dr. Donna Fernandes, President of the Buffalo Zoo. “This type of professional collaboration among AZA Zoos is vital to the important work we do as conservation organizations and we are honored to play a critical role.”

July 3, 2014   No Comments

Painted Dogs: Connecting our Africa Exhibit to Carnivore Conservation in Tanzania

We are in the home stretch, putting the finishing touches on Phase IV of our ambitious Africa exhibit this week, which opens to the public on Saturday. Soon, the large savannah will be home to Thomson’s gazelles, impala and lesser kudu as well as ostrich, pink-backed pelicans and more. New exhibits include bat-eared foxes (future meerkat) and, of course, African painted dogs.

Thomson's gazelle (Photo: Paul Mannix)

Thomson’s gazelles (Photo: Paul Mannix)

Ostriches (Photo: Benh Lieu Song)

Ostriches (Photo: Benh Lieu Song)

African painted dog (Photo: Christian Sperka)

African painted dog (Photo: Christian Sperka)

It’s been quite a few years since the Zoo has exhibited African painted dogs and we’re all very excited about their return. Our female is named Imara. She came to us from Oglebay’s Good Zoo. Our male is Haka and he came to us from the Brookfield Zoo. Both of them were born in 2012. Their exhibit is a large, beautiful grassy yard featuring trees, a creek and a rocky den. Guests will be able to view them up close through a large glass window on one end of the exhibit. At the other end, the viewing opportunity is open air.

Watering the grass in the new painted dog yard.

Watering the grass in the new painted dog yard

You'll be able to find out what it's like to have large ears like a painted dog.

You’ll be able to find out what it’s like to have large ears like a painted dog.

Installing the signs at the bat-eared fox exhibit.

Installing the signs at the bat-eared fox exhibit.

African painted dogs are endangered in the wild with fewer than 6,000 remaining in central and southern Africa. The Zoo contributes to their conservation by supporting the Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) in Tanzania. RCP works with local communities to ensure the survival of carnivores and people in and around Ruaha National Park. The Ruaha region is home to Africa’s third largest population of painted dogs and 10% of Africa’s lions.

Lion in Ruaha region of Tanzania (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

Lion in Ruaha region of Tanzania (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

RCP documents the presence and location of wildlife species through community-reported sightings and photos taken by motion-triggered cameras. Through the Ruaha Explorer’s Club, the Zoo sponsors one of the cameras. In return, RCP posts images taken by the Cincinnati Zoo Cam on a dedicated Facebook page; like the page to follow along! Interested in sponsoring a camera yourself? Find out more on RCP’s website.

Painted dog caught on camera in Ruaha region (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

Painted dog caught on camera in Ruaha region (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

RCP also works to improve the lives of people and predators by reducing attacks on livestock and retaliatory attacks by people. Reinforcing fencing around corrals to keep livestock safe from predators at night, for example, goes a long way towards building positive relationships between people and predators.

Improved corral fence, or boma (Photo: Jon Erickson)

Improved corral fence, or boma (Photo: Jon Erickson)

RCP also helps communities realize tangible benefits from having carnivores around by providing employment for local people, school supplies, scholarships and a stocked medical clinic. Regular education and outreach activities such as movie nights and community meetings are held. They even take villagers and schoolchildren who have never been to the national park on educational visits with support from the Cincinnati Zoo’s Angel Fund.

Local Maasai women visiting Ruaha National Park (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

Local Maasai women visiting Ruaha National Park (Photo: Ruaha Carnivore Project)

We hope you will come see Imara and Haka, our new painted dogs, at the Zoo next time you visit and we invite you to join us in supporting the conservation of their counterparts in the wild.

June 25, 2014   No Comments