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Happy World Giraffe Day!

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

Have you fed a giraffe lately?

A little girl, maybe five years old, stretches her hand toward me, bits of dollar bills poking from between her small, clenched fingers. Her pink shirt bears the outline of a stubby giraffe with prominent eyes and smiling mouth. Among his spots are a couple drops of blue, evidence of the blueberry ice cream the child must have recently enjoyed. “Would you like to feed a giraffe?” I say. She nods her head slowly, seeming afraid to smile. “She’s been so excited to do this,” chimes the woman behind her, likely her grandmother. “Giraffes are her favorite.”

Working at the Cincinnati Zoo’s Giraffe Ridge, guiding guests in hand-feeding the world’s tallest land mammal, rewards the soul and the funny bone daily. I’m privileged to accept the girl’s crumpled three dollars and direct her to the railing of the deck, where another Interpreter of Wildlife and Fun shows her how to hold out lettuce leaves for eager young Jambo. She moves with caution as she gets closer and realizes the animal’s head is larger than her whole kindergartener body. But she accepts the lettuce and stretches her arm toward the netting, where 15-foot Jambo happily slurps it away. A smile takes over the girl’s face. Her eyes dance, she brings her hands together in front of her ice cream-spattered shirt and bounces up and down on her heels. Her grandmother, so taken by the sight, has forgotten to take a photo. “Do it again!” shouts Grandma. For the second piece of lettuce (feeders get two per experience) Grandma is ready to make her Facebook friends’ day… and remember this moment for life.

My tongue is bigger than yours! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

My tongue is bigger than yours! (Photo: Jeff McCurry)

It’s World Giraffe Day and the perfect time to appreciate these spotted giants around the world and here at the Cincinnati Zoo, where we’re privileged to share four of them with the visiting public. Ours are Maasai Giraffes, the largest of nine subspecies, native to Kenya and Tanzania.

To say a giraffe is an incredible animal doesn’t convey their majesty, their beauty, and their personalities, things you can’t fully appreciate until you’re face-to-face with one. In the short time that I’ve been part of the Wild Encounters team, helping with feedings, I personally haven’t ceased to wonder at them each day, and evidence of their impact streams across the deck in the form of Zoo guests, ranging from nervous to ecstatic. As amazing as the giraffes are to behold in the Zoo, anyone who has seen them in the wild can attest to another whole level of awe. Fortunately, the Zoo provides a close-to-home encounter.

Everyone loves to feed the giraffes! (Photo: DJJAM)

Everyone loves to feed the giraffes! (Photo: DJJAM)

Giraffe feeding is the great leveler. It’s not just five-year-old girls who light up. It’s babies in their parents arms, boisterous school groups, tribes of teen-aged friends, middle-aged couples, elderly folks, people of every color and culture, from Mennonites to Chinese tourists, English-speaking or not, and individuals with every kind of disability.

I saw a blind woman blown away by the feeling of the giraffe’s breath on her arm and the wet tongue brushing her hand. I had a retirement-aged woman walk up and say, “I don’t have a child with me or anything. I’m just by myself, but this is on my bucket list.” I saw a teen boy who was clearly over hanging out with his parents all day, grin from ear to ear but then give his second piece of lettuce to his dad saying, “You HAVE try this.” There was one little boy who just couldn’t. Stop. Laughing. The whole time… Others cry. I’ll admit to having cried along with one or two of them.

In 1889, the Cincinnati Zoo became the first zoo in the Western Hemisphere to welcome a baby giraffe, a tradition that has taken breaks but continues today. Tessa and Kimbaumbau (Kimba), designated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) as a match for breeding, arrived in 2010. Cece and Jambo joined them in 2013. Regulars and staff members have their favorites. Kimba, the male, is breathtaking in his sheer size, 16.5 feet with eyes the size of racquetballs. Tessa, the oldest, is graceful and sometimes shy to approach the deck. Cece and Jambo have been getting a lot of attention since we announced that each is carrying a baby, and no one can miss Jambo’s “messy” hair atop her ossicones.

Kimba says hello!

Kimba says hello!

According to the Wild Nature Institute, only about 80,000 giraffes remain in the wild. As a keystone species, their well-being affects the well-being of whole habitats. Over the past few years, the Zoo has supported the work of the Wild Nature Institute to conduct photographic mark-recapture surveys of Maasai giraffe in the fragmented Tarangire Ecosystem of northern Tanzania. A portion of the proceeds from our Gentle Giants: Private Giraffe Encounter program supports this effort.

Maasai giraffes in the wild (Photo: Dr. Derek Lee, Wild Nature Institute)

Maasai giraffes in the wild (Photo: Dr. Derek Lee, Wild Nature Institute)

I invite you to join us for giraffe feeding every day throughout the summer, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We hope that by meeting giraffes up close, at our Zoo or others, you’ll find the inspiration to take action.

Today my favorite visitor is Robbie. He’s about three years old. He and his big sis have just finished feeding, and now their parents just want them to pose for a moment with Cece behind them. Mom holds up her phone ready to snap, saying “Look at Mommy!” Sister faces the camera, posed and smiling, but Robbie is turned 180 degrees away, stock still and agog at the giraffe’s face on the other side of the netting. “Robbie! Robbie, turn around!” Mom pleads, glancing anxiously at the long line of people waiting. I’m happy to give her a couple of minutes to capture the shot. “Robbie, look at Mommy!” Big sister tugs at Robbie’s arm, encouraging him to turn. He’s mesmerized. Finally, Mom smiles and slips her phone into her purse. She’s just happy to see him happy. She takes his hand and guides him away to his next adventure.

June 21, 2016   No Comments

Endangered Texas Ocelots: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Thanks to all who came out to AAZK’s Cinco de Gato fundraiser on May 15 to support Texas ocelot conservation! We had a fantastic time at Ladder 19. Great food and drinks, and Sihil, our ocelot ambassador, was a star as usual. With your help, we were able to raise more than $2,000 to support ocelot conservation through the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Sihil wows the crowd at Cinco de Gato (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Sihil wows the crowd at Cinco de Gato (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Celebrating Cinco de Gato! (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

Celebrating Cinco de Gato! (Photo: Pizzelle Photography)

The endangered Texas ocelot needs our help more than ever. Over the past year, seven of the estimated 80 remaining Texas ocelots were killed by vehicles. Six of these mortalities were adult males. Among ocelots, it is not easy to be a maturing male. In order to prevent competition for access to breeding females, older males often force the younger males to leave the area where they grew up, sending them out to find females and territory of their own. Once out of protected, dense brush habitat areas, these younger males encounter the human-developed world and all of its dangers, in particular roads and vehicles. In reaction to the large proportion of road mortalities being males, Dr. Hilary Swarts, a wildlife biologist who monitors ocelots in south Texas with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said, “I can’t say it’s surprising that six of the seven deaths were males, since they have such a rough time of it once the older males start to see the younger males as competition for mates and territory.”

Ocelot Mortalities Map (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ocelot Mortalities Map (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It is also not a great surprise to see that three of the seven deaths occurred on Highway 186, which bisects optimal ocelot habitat. Though road signs warning of wildlife were posted in the high risk stretch of Highway 186 in November 2015, thanks to actions by Willacy County officials and the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), signs alone did not reduce the threat of vehicle collision to ocelots.

Hwy 186 Wildlife Crossing Sign (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hwy 186 Wildlife Crossing Sign (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

This terrible run of ocelot road mortalities emphasizes the crucial need for under-the-road wildlife crossings to allow ocelots and other wildlife to pass under roads to avoid vehicles.  USFWS and TXDOT have worked hard to establish ocelot road crossings in areas south of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. In the future, they plan to establish crossings in other areas where recent ocelot deaths have occurred, particularly on Highway 186.

Ocelot killed on Hwy 77 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ocelot killed on Hwy 77 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The good news is that construction of wildlife underpasses has already begun on FM106, a road that borders and runs through excellent ocelot habitat on the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Ocelots have been killed there in the past. The first ocelot crossing was installed on April 27, 2016 and the next one is underway.  A series of eight crossings in total is planned for roads near the refuge.  Once installed, crossings will be monitored to see how ocelots and other wildlife respond. “This is new terrain for us, since wildlife crossings have not really been built in ocelot habitat before. It will be very interesting to see what our wildlife crossing monitoring program reveals about when and how ocelots and other wildlife use the newly installed crossings” Swarts said.

Wildlife crossing being installed on FM106 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Wildlife crossing being installed on FM106 (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Another positive development is that this summer, TXDOT will begin installing a series of four ocelot crossings on State Highway 100, which has been the site of five known ocelot mortalities over the years.  USFWS is also working with partners and neighboring landowners to establish permanent wildlife corridors for ocelots and other species in the area around Highway 100. These targeted wildlife corridors are made of suitable habitat that will connect protected areas, and provide a safer travel route to the wildlife crossings that are being constructed.

With such a small population, every ocelot is important to the population’s survival. Past data have shown that 40% of identified ocelots were killed by vehicles. The new era of installing wildlife crossings on roadways in areas where ocelots live will be one of the most important ongoing actions for ocelot conservation in south Texas.

May 27, 2016   1 Comment

The Power of Connections: Endangered Species Day

Guest blogger: Kristina Meek, Wild Encounters

There are currently 16,306 plants and animals listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That’s more people than visit our Zoo on a typical spring day.

It’s Endangered Species Day, so you might hear a lot of shocking numbers like this, which could understandably put a damper on your day. If you wanted to make a difference, which of the 16,000+ would you even choose to start with? Well, you don’t have to choose. All plant and animal life is interconnected, which means that by taking small actions that support a healthy ecosystem, you can benefit all species, including our own!

If you’re visiting our blog, you’re probably passionate about animals and the environment. That passion gives you power. Let’s look at how you can harness your power to make Endangered Species Day the start of significant change.

What does “endangered” actually mean?

It’s a good idea to first understand what we mean by the term. In the 1990s, the IUCN developed the Red List of Threatened Species™, widely recognized as the standard for evaluating a plant or animal’s risk of extinction. They rank species along a continuum from “least concern,” to “vulnerable,” followed by “endangered,” the more serious “critically endangered,” and finally, “extinct.” Watch this video to learn more.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also maintains a list of endangered species, as do state and local agencies. Around our Zoo and others, you might see signs that display an animal’s IUCN classification. For example, you’ll see that the red pandas are considered “vulnerable,” while the black rhinos are “critically endangered.”

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Black rhino (Photo: Cassandre Crawford)

Taking action

As we’ve said, one positive environmental action holds the potential to affect a lot of different areas. We’re all living on the same planet, so shopping with reusable bags here in Cincinnati really does have ripple effects for polar bears in the Arctic!

Here at the Zoo, you can bring us your old cell phone for recycling, which reduces the need for mining metals in endangered gorilla habitat to make new ones. Go a step further by collecting phones at your school or around your neighborhood.

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

Western lowland gorillas (Photo: Mark Dumont)

You can also support our many conservation field efforts. Cheetahs, western lowland gorillas, and keas are just a few of the species we’re actively involved with conserving in the wild. When we work to protect these animals’ habitats, we also benefit countless other species with whom they share space.

You don’t need to limit your choices to those you can carry out at the Zoo. Change can begin in your own backyard…literally. Plant native plant species in your yard. They’ll attract native insects which, in turn, will attract other native species that eat them, and native species that eat them. More pollinating insects means more native plants and, you see, the cycle really gets going!

Good news

As a team, organizations accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), like ours, have made strides in restoring more than 30 species to healthy wild populations, including the American bison, the California condor and a variety of aquatic species. (Read more about AZA efforts here.)

There has been good news just over the past year. In 2015, the IUCN moved the Iberian lynx from “critically endangered” to the less severe “endangered.” The Guadalupe fur seal went from “threatened” down to “least concern.” The global community has taken new interest in restricting trophy hunting thanks, in part, to the publicity surrounding Cecil the lion’s tragic death. Change can happen.

And just last week, we received good news for a critically endangered species that is near and dear to our hearts, the Sumatran rhino. A female rhino calf was born on May 12 at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) in Indonesia. The calf’s father, Andalas, was born here at the Zoo in 2001 and moved to the SRS in 2007. With fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left on the planet, this birth is significant for the species, and we are proud to have played a part in it.

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

Ratu and her newborn calf (Photo: Stephen Belcher)

There are infinite choices you can make to promote positive change, but you’ll be most successful if you start with one or two that really speak to you. You’ll help ensure that currently endangered animals are still around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy and, more importantly, you’ll improve life on Earth for all of us.

And be sure to tell your friends and family. The power of your passion is contagious!

“The quality of our life on this earth is dependent on how we treat the rest of life on Earth. We have a moral responsibility to look after the rest of the world, the future of which now lies in our hands.”  –David Attenborough

May 20, 2016   2 Comments