Imperfect Specimens

In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence.  I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center (NMFS)

But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case.  If you have worked  with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage.   Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of  California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards.   It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured.   In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies.  I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.

Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before.   It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.

I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect.  It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching.  Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.

I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.

Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens.  Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons.  They may have studied newly described species  or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

Vanishing Felid of the Wakhan Corridor

Time Article

Time Article

(No commentary or supplemental info provided at this time)

Hyenas Laughing

(Follow Link to BBC Report)

From BBC Report

The spotted or laughing hyena is the largest member of Hyaenidae inhabiting open areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. These highly social predators are often erroneously labeled as strict scavengers like other members of this clade of hyaenid carnivorans. Other species include, striped hyenas, brown hyenas, and aardwolves (earth wolves).

Unlike other hyaenids, the foraging ecology of spotted hyenas is often considered similar to that of large African felids and canids with respect to their prey base and predatory behavior. They are certainly known for being indiscriminant  scavengers with robust digestive systems permitting the consumption of  very large ungulate bones. However, they hunt their fair share of ungulates, competing heavily with lions. Common prey include wildebeests, zebra and Thompson’s gazelles, but as predators they are also quite indiscriminant. Spotted hyenas have been reported to catch fish, tortoises, pythons, pangolins, and prey on black rhinos, hippo calves, young elephants, as well as humans, among other species, including a host of different ungulate species. They will avoid some of the largest of adult ungulates.   In captivity, they may live as long as 10-12 years, but have been known to live as long as 25 yrs.  These nocturnal animals are not rare is zoo collections, but are on display primarily for educational purposes, as their conservation status places them at a lower risk than many other members of their large African carnivore community.

The San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo, Toronto Zoo, Miami MetroZoo, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, the Milwaukee County Zoo, the San Antonio Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the Honolulu Zoo, the Sacramento Zoo, the Oakland Zoo, the Rio Grande Zoo (NM), the Seneca Park Zoo (Rochester, NY), and the Oklahoma City Zoo are just some of the living institutions where you can see spotted hyenas in North America.

I welcome you to join, a mailing list that serves global husbandry and health professionals working with canids and hyaenids managed in captive facilities for behavioral/endocrinological research and for educational exhibition.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

The Coveted Common Hippopotamus

About a week ago I posted an article which didn’t quite surface on Associated Press outlets as I suspected it would, but never-the-less it received positive feedback from distinguished guest contributing authors to the blog, subscribers and Zoo Peeps followers on Facebook. I’m talking about the post on the  under-appreciated mega-camelid, the Bactrian camel.

Although more people are probably fans of the common hippo than Bactrian camels, they too, in my opinion are underappreciated. There are certainly exceptions at zoos around the world where resident hippos are the most popular and beloved animals in the collection. People are toured behind-the-scenes and offered a chance to watch the keepers brush their teeth. Incidentally, they too are poached for their tusks, but they are formidable targets for poachers.

In East Africa they may be feared, if anything, but unless they are displayed in contemporary exhibits, they often are over-looked and underappreciated.  In the mid 1980’s Toledo’s hippoquarium was unveiled and was soon ranked as one of the top ten zoo exhibits in the country. The exhibit was featured in National Geographic and has since received great acclaim for visual recordings of underwater births of hippo calves.

Still, more people are interested in rhinos and elephants. This is due in-part to conservation efforts and publicity surrounding the plight of these more endangered pachyderms (e.g.,more so than rhino species) and the obvious popularity of elephants. However, these semi-aquatic pachyderms are the second largest terrestrial mammals by weight, following the elephant and perhaps even more dangerous in some regards. Their ill-temperment towards humans makes them less than popular and detracts from their reputation.  They are often considered the most dangerous animals in Africa if you consider data on the reported lethal encounters with people. They certainly aren’t reluctant to chase off Nile crocodiles, lions, or hyenas. They not only attack people, but they attack people and the water craft they are riding in. Hence, hippo eco-tourism has yet to flourish, although logistical restraints can preclude wild viewing.

Hippos are still regarded as a species of concern. In  2006 the common hippopotamus was listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, with an estimated population of between 125,000 and 150,000 individuals left in the wild. Their numbers have decreased by as much as 20 % since the last census studies were reported in the mid 1990’s.

Regardless of their popularity or concern for their conservation status, they have most interesting life histories and I consider them quite the charismatic mega-vertebrates. In the zoo, it’s much more interesting to view them underwater where they spend much of the day. They conserve energy by doing almost nothing unless they leave the water to feed. So at most  zoos where hippos are displayed viewing is limited to watching a submerged individual in dung contaminated pools.  This doesn’t compromise  their health as the pools are regularly drained and refilled, but it may compromise their popularity as exhibit animals.   I would agree that there’s not always much to see with hippos. With that said, Obaysch, a celebrity hippo at the London Zoo who debuted in the late 1800’s drew 10,000 visitors a day.  But again, he was a novel exhibit animal at the time.

Hippos live to be half a century in age, outliving their wild counterparts by just a few years. Today, many hippos in zoos  are of a generation where they are nearing the end of their lifespan.  To zoo staff they become legendary and hopefully there will be a time when more of these animals are replaced in zoos as more institutions can afford to build contemporary exhibits that do justice to these magnificent animals. Both San Diego and Toledo have phenomenal exhibits, and other zoos display pygmy hippos very well. Louisville Zoo, for example, has a fantastic pygmy hippo exhibit.  The captive gene pool is healthy enough that recruitment of wild individuals is unnecessary. However, as I  mentioned, it’s very expensive to build a contemporary hippo exhibit because water filtration that can handle hippo excrement is quite costly, not to mention the volume of water needed to house hippos. They can be exhibited with fish as they are not piscivorous, but rather herbivorous. Some fish species are particularly adapted to feed on the dead skin and other debris found on hippos. In the wild the hippos literally walking into cleaning stations where different species of freshwater fish tend to different regions that need cleaning.

They recently gained international attention when the late  Pablo Escobar’s herd of hippos was discovered to be living free in Columbia after escaping the confines of their enclosures on his compound’s ranch. They apparently adapted quite well to foraging on the native flora in the region. Unfortunately, they were deemed a great danger to civilians and most, if not all of the animals in the herd were killed.  At least we know that they were coveted collection animals by someone (i.e., drug baron). I can’t think of many people today with resources available to manage private collections who seek out it hippos. I certainly don’t condone private ownership of hippos, but it’s interesting to know that they were of interest to someone.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

*Note: With the exception of one of my own illustrations posted below, all photos that accompany previous blog posts from myself and Dr. Laurel Neme are from random browser image searches for generic photos.  As soon as I can track down the original sources, I will credit the photographer and welcome any information that the readership is privy to.  Contributing author Diana L. Guerrero provides her own photos from her stock footage. If you have any questions about photo credits please email me at   Thank you.  If you have a photo that you would like to share we welcome those as well.

High Functioning Simians: Calculus Anyone?

Metacognition Study

I don’t know that I’m not smart enough to understand all the implications of these rigorous experimental studies of ape cognition. Metacognition research is supposed to elucidate how higher vertebrates understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes. At the same time it begs the question if the readership demographic most suited to utilize the information finds the study palatable and transferable. I know that it took me some time to process, and probably some time for others who are not always current on scholarly work in this particular area. And some might suggest that anecdotal information has already confirmed this as far as some are concerned.

When I worked with greater and lesser apes as a keeper (all but bonobos), I was more interested in the anecdotal data that I could relate to- information that could help me enhance enrichment programs for animals displayed for public education in the confines of a zoological park, and not in the context of highly controlled laboratory studies. By no means do I dismiss the importance of these studies, as they contribute to document our knowledge of “executive functioning” in animals and teach us much about their potential to interact with con-specifics and their captive environment.

With that said, I relied on my supervisors credentialed or not, with years of experience working with great apes everyday to learn how apes think. Whose to say what is more appropriate or not.  Perhaps we should defer to a combination of resources. With the exception of Gordon Gallup’s work, I don’t know if I would perform as well as the apes do in these studies, much less understand it’s significance. I’m curious as to how this science trickles down to those who are in a position to ultimately apply what was learned for the benefit of the animals. This is not my field and there may be a very clear answer. At the same time it would be selfish to assert that this contribution to science is not of benefit if it is not directly applicable to zoo work. I have not read the original article, but likely their intention is to reach a much broader audience of scholars and behavioral practitioners.

I’ve worked on some unrelated studies that have absolutely no application to animal welfare or health, but at the onset they seemed like there was potential for some practical application. I guess you never know.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus