Living Institutions or Zoos?

Is it a Zoo or a Living Collection? This is what happens to you if you spend too much time in school as I did. Everything becomes an “institution” and eventually so do you. Actually, I prefer Living Institution which I believe was coined by the  top-notch folks at the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society.  The reason I like the term is because zoos are deserving of the same respect that academics tend to reserve for Museums of Natural History. I’d much prefer to call a zoo a zoo, but in an effort to better market these wildlife holding facilities to a more sophisticated patron or consumer, I think it’s worth considering a slight upgrade.

I don’t know that the Popcorn Park Zoo will be as well- served by the name change. In fact, the Popcorn Park Living Institution sounds kind of scary. It doesn’t quite roll of the tongue, rather it  falls out of the skull, for lack of a less artfully sadistic expression. With that said, it’s also all-encompassing terminology. A living institution can refer to a collective group of marine parks, aquariums,  zoological parks and other captive wildlife facilities.  Some may think that my thought process alone, warrants sending me to another kind of institution, but I think that facilities can be well-served with multiple names.  Zoo Miami has just adopted two. One name is official and the other is used as a working title. The “Living Institution of Miami” might conjure up some kind of convalescent home in your mind, but once people get used to it, the name may very well catch on.

I remember when one of my parents friends asked me what I thought of the tittle  “Zoo Keeper.” I didn’t initially pick up on her condescension. I replied that technically I’m an “Animal Keeper” who happens to work at a zoo. I was very proud that I came up with the distinction so promptly and on my own. And then I realized  she was hoping I would come up with a more sophisticated name like “Scatological Disposal Technician” or my favorite, “Special Species Collection Husbandry Science Specialist.”  In school you are often taught big words and faculty often carry  big titles. Again, I see potential for multiple titles. This goes back to my post about my friend who is a self-proclaimed “aquatic biologist “even though his official title is animal keeper. He may be an aquatic biologist, but his colleagues refer to him as fish geek or fish keeper. I think that the longer and more confusing the name, the more we create intrigue. Some of you will continue to disagree vehemently, but it’s just my new opinion on the matter after I started to become fond of the name  “Living Institution.”

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus (AKA Special Species Collection Husbandry Science Specialist Emeritus)

“Vice President of Fish”

This title grabbed the attention of an all-time low number of  subscribers 30 minutes post-publication (lunch).  I’m re-posting with a new title and a challenge for you to name that fish in the pic below.

As you can see I’m alternating between field conservation topics and discussions more directly relevant to collections husbandry science at living institutions.

This is a short one, but I wanted to offer some fish flakes for thought. A friend of mine who works in an aquatics/aquarium department of a large zoo asked my opinion about appropriate titles for fish and aquatic invertebrate husbandry specialists. My first thought was that the person who signs his pay check is the only person whose opinion matters. My second thought was that it depends on where you work.  At a public aquarium the title of aquarist is popular, but so is biologist.  This friend preferred the term “biologist” because the title is used in some commercial aquaculture circles, and he also felt that such a distinction more aptly described his job responsibilities. He is responsible for life support systems and the maintenance of aquatic ecosystems from reef tanks to brackish water exhibits to pelagic ocean fish tanks.

Aquariology is the study of both the fauna and flora of aqauria. Hence, aquariologist may be the most appropriate title for professional fish husbandry personnel working in public aquaria whereas “fish keeper” may be reserved for the tropical fish hobbyists or private fish breeders.

Fisheries biologists study commercial and wild fisheries, but also must have a working knowledge of fish keeping as well as the design and maintenance of life support systems for commercial fish breeding.

This topic really begs the question of whether or not all husbandry positions deserve specialist titles.   I personally think that “wild animal keeper” is fitting because it has persisted for so long and emphatically coveys the role of working with wildlife.  The Bronx Zoo- based Wildlife Conservation Society and many EAZA members refer to their zoo animal husbandry specialists as such.  Animal Care Specialist or Husbandry Technician are also quite fitting.

I understand that some institutions may refrain from designating husbandry and training staff as “biologists” because those titles have historically been reserved for those personnel conducting research as primary part of their occupation description. I understand this.  The questioned that followed was whether or not an animal husbandry specialist or animal keeper in theory, is deserving of the title “biologist.”   A biologist studies some aspect of life, but does not necessarily conduct research. In academia some faculty are hired exclusively as research scientists (biologists) and do nothing, but conduct research. Hence, it is fair to distinguish a research scientist/biologist from other scientists/biologists who endeavor to do more than conduct research studies.  They may teach, they may curate collections, and they might write science articles for more popular publications among other things.  It is also fair to consider an animal keeper who caters to the environmental and physiological requirements of an animal as a biologist. Through formal education or experience one must have learned enough about organismal biology to sustain life. Fish keepers not only sustain life through managing aquatic life support systems, but they also sustain the aquatic ecosystem that mimics natural environments derived from surface water. Other ectotherm biologists (e.g. herpetologists/herp keepers) also cater to both the organism and the artificial environment. Both these specialist vocational categories require a comprehensive understanding of physiological ecology and ecosystem health on a micro-scale.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

DNRM (Name This Fish)

Engelbert Humperdinck Supports Same-Sex Marriage in Pelagic Seabirds

Can Animals be Gay? New York Times (April 2, 2010)

It’s truly none of my business whether or not people with different sexual preferences choose to commit to marriage.  In fact, I think that everyone should try it at least once, and some have endeavored to try it many times.  No one cares whether I condone or endorse it, but I do know that the divorce rate among some pelagic seabirds that have entered into committed relations with same-sex partners is particularly low. And yes, biologists do refer to the frequency of break-ups of such unions in the animal kingdom as divorce rates.

Text books have recently broached the subject of same-sex relations in the animal kingdom because it’s much more common than we once thought and evolutionary biologists, and sociobiologists now recognize these relationships as important factors that drive evolution.   Same-sex unions play a role in cooperative breeding strategies, they help mediate intrasexual conflict, and they facilitate social bonding. These partnerships are documented in courtship behavior, pair bonding and copulation in species as wide-ranging as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Even one of our closest simian relative, the bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee is known to engage in these kinds of partnerships. Invertebrates such as molluscs and nematodes also participate in such behavior. As a medical zoologist, applied nematology of parasitic species in zoo animals is an interest of mine, but I can’t say that I have observed same sex relations among roundworms that I’m aware of.

The spheniscid penguins at the San Francisco Zoo elicited world-wide attention as have other penguin couples at the Central Park and Bremerhaven zoos .  I don’t know what transpired in Manhattan or in Germany, but partners Harry and Pepper are the two Magellanic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo who were broken up by a female penguin (technically called a hen) by the name of Linda.  Harry and Pepper entered into a romantic relationship in 2003 and spent several years together before splitting up.

Magellanics are spheniscid penguins native to Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands. They are closely related to black-footed (jackass) penguins of South Africa and the Humboldt penguins (Peruvian penguins) of the Chilean and Peruvian coastlines.   All three species are common in captivity.  Temperate penguins are not only popular exhibit animals, but anyone who has worked with them can share fond memories of these birds. And many keepers bare the scars of their painful bites as I can.  The spectrum of docility in these captive birds ranges quite a bit.  I don’t want to suggest that these penguins are inherently vicious.  Some are great animal ambassadors and commonly participate in hands-on education programs. Careful monitoring of imprinted animals is always considered.

Only the keepers may be able to provide the intricate social dynamics and genealogy of a particular captive colony.  San Francisco Zoo keeper, Anthony Brown, is quite a knowledgeable and seasoned zoo professional. Perhaps he can share more details and insight into the particular love triangle involving Harry, Pepper and Linda. He could als0 share more about the sociobiology of these temperate penguin species in general. I myself have worked with different penguin species, but among spheniscid birds, I have only been privileged to work with a  colony of 40 black-footed penguins.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we overlooked some of these atypical partnerships in the colony that I worked with.  They were a blast to take care of.  Even if you have a feather phobia I recommend that you find an opportunity to work with these little guys.

Spheniscid penguins may be a bit more promiscuous than Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins in captivity and in the wild. I can’t speak to that claim, but they certainly are more liberal in their romantic interests than some pelagic sea birds.  Laysan albatrosses, for instance, live about twice as long as spheniscid penguins and they may remain in monogamous same-sex relationships for their entire lifespan (approx. 60 yrs).   This brings us to crooner, and world- acclaimed recording artist Engelbert Humperdinck. One of his more recent hits Lesbian Seagull became a pop culture sensation.  Nearing 75, the legend also known as the “King of Romance” shared his appreciation for all kinds of romance with this tribute to same-sex partnerships in seagulls.

Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo Keeper Emeritus

Pick the Right Whale

Shortly after beginning my zoo career as children’s zoo attendant, my first paid position with a living institution, I found another opportunity that would allow me to serve again in a most subordinate capacity to almost everyone at the facility.  I had been advised to gain experience at as many facilities as possible.  So I took sabbatical leave to work with the dive team and marine bird and mammal husbandry personnel at the highly esteemed New England Aquarium. This was in an era when research and conservation departments were rare among even regional zoos and aquariums. The late John Prescott was the director when I arrived at the aquarium and he was responsible for building the world-class marine science research program from the ground up. He was an ardent supporter of whale conservation and rigorous marine animal research. Upon arriving at the New England Aquarium I learned that the top floor was designated entirely for research. I had no idea what the word research really meant, but it sounded very impressive, whatever it was.  It was not common for the husbandry staff to mingle with researchers. Colleagues are colleagues, but there seemed to be minimal interaction among staff in different departments. Today husbandry, health, and research departments collaborate more often than not at most institutions and interaction is common place. With that said the New England Aquarium was still way ahead of it’s time.

Eventually I asked what they were researching “upstairs” without trying to probe too much about a seemingly covert operation.  I was told they, the researchers, were working on tuna, bluefin tuna.  I have since become very familiar with pelagic tuna fisheries, but prior to working with the gallery aquarists and the aquarium’s dive team the only tuna I had encountered was in a can.

What I soon learned was that the New England Aquarium’s team of behavioral ichthyologists was conducting very basic behavioral studies on a small school of Atlantic bluefin tuna in a large recirculating seawater holding system.  I  even got a chance to go up to the research suite to have a look at them for myself. As fascinating as tuna are, particularly in regards to thermal biology and physiological ecology, and their migratory behavior, I  didn’t know enough to be impressed. The antics of  40 or so spheniscid penguins and smaller colony of crested penguins were much more interesting to me. It’s funny when you are young and don’t even know enough to be impressed.

I should take a moment to apologize to Dr. Les Kaufman, Chief Scientist and Head of the Edgerton Research Laboratory at the New England Aquarium. I was introduced to him, but at the time I didn’t know about his great contributions to marine fisheries science and fish husbandry. I certainly had not read any of his work. To me he was just one of the tuna guys upstairs. His team would go on to learn a great deal about these fish in terms of husbandry and health care. His team also contributed to our knowledge of the behavioral ecology of spawning-size giant bluefin and their distribution in pelagic waters of the Western Atlantic, among other things.  They would learn quite a bit about these commercially important fish.

The New England Aquarium is truly a world renowned research facility and exhibit. The facility was built in 1969 on Boston’s  waterfront, and is considered the first modern public aquarium by many in the industry. It has not only revolutionized the aquarium experience for patrons, but it has long been committed to research and possibly developed collaborative relationships with academia long before other public aquariums and zoos began to invest any time or much interest in conservation and science programs.

I’m sure the CITES rejection to ban the trade of tuna was most discouraging to staff at the New England Aquarium and for other marine biologists and aquarium personnel around the country who have worked hard to conserve these species and educate the public about the plight of tuna fisheries. With that said, the New England Aquarium remains a leader in it’s field. For example, the aquarium spearheads research programs for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The North Atlantic right whale along with North Pacific right whale are two of the most endangered whale species in the world. In fact, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as critically endangered with only about 400 left in the wild.  The aerial surveys and catalog work along with efforts to mitigate threats to this species are the reasons that the aquarium’s cetacean project is the most comprehensive and longest-running North Atlantic right whale conservation and research program in the world.

I applaud the aquarium for all of these behind-the-scenes conservation efforts that may go unnoticed and unappreciated by patrons and even fellow zoo and aquarium personnel who are simply unaware of this great institution’s marine science programs.

As many of you known the Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc. designed the New England Aquarium, and later the Chattanooga aquarium in Tennessee (Tennessee Aquarium), which is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. The also designed Baltimore’s National Aquarium which is considered to be one of the very best aquariums in the world.  The staff in Baltimore also collaborate with educational facilities and government agencies on conservation projects and they also operate a smaller facility by the same name, the National Aquarium which is located in Washington D.C.

Some of my colleagues currently working at public aquariums have embarked on an ambitious undertaking to bring a new world-class aquarium to Cleveland, OH.  Cleveland is a prominent town in the Aquarium industry.  Some of the very individuals and other former staff from the old Cleveland Aquarium were credited with developing Instant Ocean, the first synthetic salt formula designed for marine fish hobbyists and public aquaria. The original Cleveland Aquarium, a relatively small facility was torn down and many of the fish and marine mammals were moved to the local zoo where many are still alive to this day.  SeaWorld of Ohio which was located near Cleveland also supported an aquarium, but was eventually closed  down.

It would be nice if the economy recovers and Clevelanders can look forward to a brand new facility on the great lake they call Erie. For more information about the Cleveland Aquarium, Inc. visit their website or contact my colleagues Nick Zarlinga, or Dr. Chris Bonar. Their contact information should be available on the website.  -Dr. Jordan Schaul, Zoo  Keeper Emeritus