Are you smarter than a Hyena?

3 07 2007

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta), the “bad guys” of the African plains. My wife is repulsed by them, but I find something oddly intriguing about these predators; any social carnivore in which the female has a functioning pseudo-phallus nearly indistinguishable from the male’s is bound to stand out.

Spotted Hyena Skeleton

Spotted Hyena are extremely effective, social predators, being much more effective hunters than many people think. The classic African battleground, at least in the mind of the public, features a pride of lions valiantly defending a kill from a pack of dastardly hyenas, laughing and yipping in a way that can only be described as disturbing. Just as likely as not, however, the favored lions are trying to steal prey killed by hyenas, both groups of carnivores vying for the top position in their habitats (cheetahs, wild dogs, leopards, and other smaller predators typically give up their kills to the more formidable lions and hyenas). The social structure and coordination utilized by hyenas requires a fair amount of intelligence, however, and I have previously hypothesized that binocular vision (accompanied by the existence of lips and eventually shortening of the face) had some role to play in the evolution of intelligence, allowing carnivores a greater ability to form complex social structures based upon facial/body cues (binocular vision is the key step to the beginnings of having a “face”) than herbivores with eyes on each side of their head. Likewise, a new study in the Journal of Mammalogy by Holekamp, et al. looks at how the intelligence of Spotted Hyena may be convergent with that of some primates with a similar social structure.

Intelligence is a costly thing to have, especially metabolically speaking; it takes a lot of energy to run what’s inside your noggin, so whatever selective forces produced our big brains must have been of considerable advantage (or allowed to keep acting as we were better able to literally feed our brains). The authors of the paper outline two hypotheses about the circumstances that favored the evolution of great intellectual capacity;

The 1st hypothesis suggests that these traits were favored by selective forces in the physical environment, such as the need to learn and recall when fruit might become available on trees that fruit sporadically, how to use tools to extract difficult foods, or how to navigate visually through a 3-dimensional arboreal world (e.g., Milton 1981; Povinelli and Cant 1995). The 2nd hypothesis, known broadly as the ‘‘social complexity’’ hypothesis, suggests instead that the selective force favoring big brains and advanced cognition in primates was the need to anticipate, appropriately respond to, and manipulate the social behavior of conspecifics (reviewed in Byrne and Whiten 1988).

I look at this problem not from the angle of one over the other, but rather “Which came first and which had the largest impact at any given period?” but the authors state the social complexity hypothesis seems to have more evidence to support it, although studies in non-primate animals are lacking. If the social complexity hypothesis is correct, however, we should see evidence of convergence among other groups of animals similar in social structure to primate groups, and this makes the spotted hyena an ideal subject to test this hypothesis. Indeed, the social structure of the hyenas seem to have parallels with the primate subfamily Cercopithecinae (“baboons, macaques, vervets, guenons, talapoins, patas monkeys, and mangabeys”), the carnivores providing a good “independent test” given that the last common ancestor they shared with primates existed during the late Mesozoic.

Like primates, spotted hyenas do not produce large amounts of offspring per pregnancy (usually 1 to 2 cubs are born at a time) and the young a fed milk for an extremely long time, up to 24 months (the copious amounts of bone hyenas ingest keeps the milk flowing for this extended period). In fact, the period during which hyenas are nursed surpasses that of the primate analogs considered in the paper, but the hyenas do become reproductively ready in about the same time-frame as the primates (male hyenas are ready essentially when weaned {although this doesn’t mean they successfully mate at this time}, females begin mating between 3 and 4 years). Indeed, the authors of the study have produced an entire table for comparison between hyenas and the primates, and the lack of substantial differences are surprising. Let’s take baboons as our prime analog for the hyenas; both live in large groups of animals related through mothers that stay in the group, dominance being determined via a hierarchy of display and combat, cooperative resource sharing, individuals maintaining bonds with kin, individuals preferring higher-ranking members for same-sex social partners, etc. Indeed, the primary differences seem to be that hyena clans are female-dominated and that hyenas engage in cooperative hunting, the overall social structure of the distantly-related mammals being surprisingly alike.

While we do benefit from the overall comparison of behaviors shared by certain primates and hyenas, the ability to recognize 3rd-party relationships is an important sign of the intelligence an animal may possess. It’s easy to remember who is higher or lower than yourself in a social hierarchy, but to be able to recognize the status of, for example, two fighting hyenas and side with the higher ranking one to gain favor can be quite useful. The authors describe the test of 3rd-party relationships among hyenas in this way;

Thus, a hyena considering an attack might benefit, for example, when attempting to displace a larger subordinate animal from food, by delaying its attack until the arrival of a potential ally who is higher ranking than the target animal. If a hyena increases its rate of aggression only after a hyena that is higher ranking than itself arrives on the scene, then the animal might be following a simple rule of thumb, such as ‘‘Only attack a larger subordinate when another individual is present who is higher ranking than yourself.’’ Use of this sort of simple mental algorithm would not require that hyenas be able to recognize 3rd-party relationships among their group-mates. However, if a hyena’s attack rate also increases after the arrival of an individual who is dominant to the victim but subordinate to the attacker, then the attacking hyena must recognize the relative ranks of the other 2 individuals. In the latter case, the hyena would be demonstrating that it can indeed recognize tertiary relationships.

In considering dominance it should be noted that mere size does not mean everything, especially for young hyenas. Young hyenas are born into the rank just below their mothers, and so it was quite easy for a larger hyena to be subordinate to others unless it is able to establish itself through a fight. Being able to call utilize a cohort to prevent a larger animal from winning in a battle would be a good way to preserve the hierarchy in spite of size difference. Even if two hyenas are fighting and a more dominant individual arrives on the scene, it will side with the more dominant of the two individuals in the dispute, and so it is a very bad day for a hyena when a subordinate attacks a more dominant individual without any support, nor is it good for the relatives of the losers. In addition to the imposed dominance hierarchy, hyenas also recognize kin relationships, and after fights whichever hyena was the aggressor is more likely to act aggressive to the kin of the victim, even taking out aggression on the kin of their opponent more than on unrelated lower-ranking members (which Sapolsky described many times among baboons in A Primate’s Memoir). Still, there’s much we don’t know about hyena interactions, and more work needs to be done before we can more completely compare it to the behavior of baboons.

The spotted hyena is just one of several related animals belonging to the Family Hyaenidae, and all of its relatives are less gregarious, even to the point of not living in groups at all. The authors call for further research into cognition and intelligence with these animals as well, being that if the close relatives of the spotted hyena lack some of its cognitive abilities we can better discern how social complexity has influenced the evolution of intelligence. Just as well, study of the brains of hyenas is desperately needed; not only do we need to observe social structure, but to see if these animals have “social brains” as well. If the social complexity hypothesis is correct, we would expect the frontal cortex of the spotted hyena to be more developed than that of its less-gregarious relatives, and the same type of study could be carried out with lions in relation to other big cats. Speaking of lions, I also have to wonder how lions and spotted hyenas may have driven each other into forming prides or clans; while it’s easier to gain food as a group, it would also be easier to protect or steal food in a group rather than acting as an individual. Unfortunately the behaviors of these animals is long gone, but I can’t say that I don’t wonder about it.

But wait, there’s more! In looking for other papers to tie into this discussion I happened across Samuel Gosling’s 1998 paper “Personality Dimensions in Spotted Hyenas (Crocuta crocuta),” describing the various behavioral traits of 34 hyenas based upon “Assertiveness, Excitability, Human-Directed Agreeableness, Sociability, and Curiosity.” This sounds a little anthropomorphic at first, but animals are not all merely carbon-copies of each other, behaving in a certain fashion because they are merely programmed to do it. No, anyone who is familiar with any group of animals (especially social mammals) for any length of time can distinguish distinct personalities in the group, and the existence of varied personalities amongst hyenas speaks to their intellectual capacity as well. Indeed, what Gosling found was that dominance hierarchy alone could not explain all the behaviors of the captive hyenas studied, the only strong correlation made being females are more “assertive” than males (which is to be expected in a female-dominated social species). “Agreeableness” to keepers may also have been influenced by dominance, the keepers being viewed as being more dominant by some hyenas, but this relationship between humans and hyenas likely goes out the window when dealing with wild populations.

Spotted hyena are absolutely amazing social carnivores, one of the animals most indicative of Africa. They are easy to malign, but can be difficult to understand, but gaining such understanding may help us answer some important questions about how we came to be as we are. While I’m sure it will be a bit nerve-racking, I do look forward to my first night in Africa someday, hearing the “whoops” of the hyena across savanna at night.





Visit to the Animal Kingdom

1 07 2007

Saturday afternoon Tracey and I decided to visit the Animal Kingdom Zoo and Pet Store in Bordentown, New Jersey. It’s a small roadside zoo with lots of older-style cages and enclosures, featuring a rather surprising array of primates, and while I can’t say I’m exactly pleased with the way some of the animals are kept, the staff does seem like they’re trying to give the animals a decent existence (many of them seemed crippled or otherwise indicative of unwanted pets).

The zoo offered a few good photographic opportunities, although I’ll have to acquire (and master) photoshop to fix some of the pictures. One such shot was the following one of a wolf, as it was impossible for me to get closer to the cage to get the out-of-focus bars out of the shot;

The zoo also sported a pair of white-nosed coati in a shaded enclosure, one of which of the blonde variety;

Coati

We also happened into a newly-arrived baby camel soon after entering the zoo. This baby could not have been more than a few days old, as it still was a bit wobbly while walking and the remnants of the umbilical cord were still attached. Why it was serparated from its mother at such an early age, I don’t know;

Camel

A breeding pair of white peacocks were also roaming the grounds, the mother guarding a group of three white chicks;

Peacock

Peacock Babies

Another peacock male was not so fortunate, however; for some reason he was missing all of his beautiful, sexually-selected tail feathers. That didn’t stop him from trying, though;

Peacock

Some Helmeted Guineafowl were roaming the grounds as well (thanks for the help with the identification Julia!);

Fowl

The Muntjacs I remembered from my last visit were still at the zoo, although they had gotten rather chubby. They didn’t seem to eat the various peanuts/fruit loops/etc. people threw into their enclosure, so I’m not sure exactly how they got to be so corpulent;

Muntjac

Muntjac

Muntjac

Muntjac

The lemurs didn’t seem to experience the same weight problems, although they seemed hopelessly addicted to Fruit Loops given out in the “Animal Feed.” They largely ignored peanuts and animal crackers, sticking their heads and arms out of their cage hoping for the cereal. While I’m dubious about the long-term health effects of this, there was no doubt that they were sugar-fiends;

Lemur

There were a few canines in the zoo as well, including some sleepy fennec and silver foxes;

Fennec

There was another canid at the zoo that was less-lively; a stuffed/skinned wolf hanging in the vestibule before the zoo entrance, along with a stuffed boar head, pronghorn head, various animal skins, and others. Where the zoo acquired these pieces, I don’t know, but they were sad to see. I remember visiting a place called Ray’s Sport Shop as a child, calling it “The Animal Store,” not realizing until later that all the antelope, moose, cats, etc. on the wall were the “prizes” from various hunting trips.

Wolf

Boar

Pronghorn

Not everything about the day was sad or disquieting, however. The giraffes were extremely friendly and interesting, and I got my fair share of giraffe saliva all over my hands feeding them some grass and a few peanuts. It was interesting to see all of their different personalities, some being rather timid to take the food from me, but aggressive when a more friendly giraffe would move in. Still, it was certainly the high point of the day;

Giraffe

All in all, it wasn’t a bad day, although I wish the zoo would stop allowing visitors to give the primates so much sugar (especially unsupervised; there was virtually no staff on the grounds). The zoo reminded me of the general problems of any zoo, trying to provide safety for the people and the animals, taking in some sick and unwanted animals, but lacking the funding to give them the absolute best care.





Had enough yet?

2 06 2007

Just in case you haven’t had enough of my photography today, Jeremy Bruno of The Voltage Gate has graciously put up some of my Red Panda photos from the Bronx, Philadelphia, and National Zoos. Some you’ve seen here, some you have not, so go check it out (and don’t forget to check out his posts on the cute little critters, too!)





Action-Packed Saturday, Pt. 2

2 06 2007

After returning home from the farmer’s market, my wife and I decided to take a trip up to Essex County to visit the Turtle Back Zoo. I visited the zoo often as a child, and at one point a lack of funding was going to cause it to close. Most of the animals at the zoo, however, were old and had no place to go if the zoo closed, so contributions came in and the zoo has been largely renovated (and is still in the process of being updated). Here are some pictures I took of the various local and exotic fauna I came across at the zoo today.

Muntjac

Like many other local zoos, Turtle Back had a Muntjac. I couldn’t spot the characteristic fangs on this one, and he seemed more interested in taking a nap than posing for me.

Kangaroos

The zoos kangaroos were taking a break from the heat as well (it broke 90 degrees F today).

Red Panda

The newest addition to the zoo is a Red Panda, which decided that it would rather stay inside where it was air conditioned than come outside.

cougar

The official Kean University mascots, two cougars, also decided they would rather not deal with the heat and attempted to take a cat nap, although screaming children don’t make it easy to do so.

Black Bear

Jelly and Jam, the zoo’s Black Bears, didn’t seem to mind the heat as much though, and decided to come down close to the glass to browse some clover.

Egg

Speaking of local wildlife, I discovered some unattended eggs beneath a bush at the park. I assume they belong to a Canada Goose, although I can’t be sure. Whatever they were, I don’t think they’ll last long; they seem to just be sitting randomly without attention, so if the environment didn’t get them some lucky raccoon will tonight.

Chimpunk

Chipmunks also darted around the zoo, a welcome change from the fat gray squirrels I’m used to around here.

Alligator

PSE&G helped to renovate the alligator exhibit as well, allowing me to get much closer to a water-level shot than usual.

Elk

The above elk had an itch he had some trouble getting at.

Porcupine

Unfortunately the cage prevented me from getting a better shot, but I couldn’t pass up taking a picture of this sleepy porcupine (soon to get a larger enclosure in a wildlife of New Jersey exhibit).

Poison Frog

The zoo’s new Reptile House is also a huge improvement over the old concrete and iron structure, although they made some mistakes with their educational plaques that I’ll have to talk to them about.

Penguin

Given the popularity of penguins these days, it was of little surprise that the zoo had a few Jackass Penguins as well (usually called “African Penguins” by zoos that don’t want children repeating the dreaded j-word all day). I really hope that the film “Surf’s Up” finally kills the recent penguin obsession; I can’t take any more bad CGI films featuring the flightless birds.

Wolf

My favorite part of the day, however, was getting to see the wolves. I remember seeing some at the zoo many years ago, but the exhibit has since been renovated and is inhabited by at least 3 white wolves.

Wolf

And of course, no day would be complete without a picture of myself sitting on a (searing hot) metal replica of a Komodo Dragon.

Me





The GA aquarium continues to piss me off

1 06 2007

In mid-January of this year, “Ralph” the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) died at the Georgia Aquarium. Most initial news reports suggested that no one had any idea why the giant shark stopped swimming and soon died, the aquarium later admitting that the shark had not been eating for some time. In order to ensure that the animal gained enough nutrition, aquarium staff force-fed Ralph with a tube shoved down his throat, but this course did not help the shark.

The cause of death was reported to be peritonitis caused by a puncture in Ralph’s stomach. Aquarium staff and some researchers present suggested that the PVC pipe used to feed Ralph did not cause the fatal perforation of the stomach, although they conceded that it may have been contributory to his ill-health. Another male whale shark, “Norton,” stopped eating for a time as well, but I can only assume that he has recovered as there has been no more news, and I can’t say I’ve heard anything involving the female whale sharks Alice & Trixie. In the wake of Ralph’s death, Taiwan (which supplied the aquarium with the sharks) was reluctant to give the exhibitors any more, but apparently they gave in as two new whale sharks arrived at the aquarium today.

I really don’t see the reason for adding two more whale sharks when the aquarium already had three and one died from causes that no one at the aquarium seems to understand (either that or they’re lying). Every now and then I hear the assertion that these animals should be kept for a breeding program, but for a breeding program you need to be able to keep animals alive and well in captivity, something that is even more difficult with pelagic marine species. Plus, even if the sharks did breed we would have to assume they’d want to release the babies into the wild or that any country would let them do so, so I can’t even be sure they have “good intentions.” I do not have high hopes for the new whale sharks, and I have to wonder if they feel a bit cramped; whale sharks are large and far-ranging, and even the biggest aquarium is probably too small.

Unfortunately the Georgia Aquarium hasn’t been exactly forthcoming with information regarding Ralph’s death, nor are they likely to. If it was discovered that they contributed to the death of a threatened animal through lax husbandry practices (which I think is quite likely), they’d lose a lot of credibility and perhaps even the ability to collect rare specimens in the future, making it in the best interests to simply wave their hands around and side-step questions whenever the name “Ralph” comes up.





Done with Cetacean Woo

11 05 2007

Last night I finished Freeing Keiko and I am quite glad to be done with it. It was an interesting book, introducing me to a lot of the personalities involved in Keiko’s release into the wild (as well as all the in-fighting that occurred over the whale), but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Perhaps it was because the author, Kenneth Brower, focused primarily on the people and offered up their quotes about events; it was a bit difficult to get a mental image of what was going on at times. Perhaps this is to be expected as Brower wasn’t around for many significant events and had to get the information from those that were, and oddly enough the whale itself seems to take a backseat to the people; Keiko is represented more as a focal point which everyone revolves around rather than an actual animal.

Outside of Brower’s failure to effectively confront cetacean-woo (at one point he even contemplates whether whales can “hear” colors via echolocation with a vet), I didn’t particularly like the last chapter. While Brower has been generally unkind to aquarium industry folks (and I don’t necessarily blame him for that), he outright attacks anyone who questioned Keiko’s release into the wild after the whale died in Norway several years ago. This is odd because Brower himself seems to question all this time, money, and effort going into the release of one whale for a few moments in the book, yet anyone who came out against the release is branded as a crank or in-bed with the aquarium industry.

As one representative of the Humane Society in the book admits, I would have hoped that the Oregon facility in which Keiko was kept (as well as the facility in Iceland) would be still used to rehabilitate captive orcas for reintroduction into the wild. The release of Keiko could have made precedent and pressure could have been put on those who keep the whales to actively participate in a rehab program. This was not to be, however; Keiko’s Oregon tank got turned into a new exhibit that put the aquarium into debt and I have no idea what’s become of the Iceland facility. There are plenty of people who still remember Keiko, but I wonder what lasting impact the project has had; Keiko was released but wasn’t really ever free, always under the care of trainers and vets until death with the exception of when he swam from Iceland to Norway. I really don’t know if I would call that a success, and even if the intentions of those caring for Keiko were good they did little to break the bond between whale & trainer or discourage the whale from going near boats.

The argument is made towards the end of the book that most of the projects money came from a telecommunications billionaire who would have lost the money anyway, so it’s better that it went to the whale. This might be true, but what about all the money from Keiko t-shirts, donations from kids breaking their piggybanks, etc.? A lot of people devoted a lot of time, money, and effort to the release of this whale, and it is not likely to happen again. If Keiko wasn’t featured in a film in which his fictitious persona was released, the project would never have happened, and at this point the aquarium industry is dead set against giving up any of their whales. Even if they did, there would be no guarantee that the whales would be effectively rehabilitated, and in a way I would merely wish that the breeding programs would end and those whales living in captivity would be left to live their lives; it would be great to see them free, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal.

Hindsight is 20/20 however, and the Free Willy Foundation couldn’t have known the ultimate outcomes of their project until all was said and done. An admirable effort was made in an attempt to rehabilitate a once-captive whale (in which the succeeded), but the release seemed to give them more problems then they bargained for. Still, while Keiko is not forgotten his story has already begun to fade away, and I doubt Sea World, Miami Seaquarium, or any other park will give up their cetaceans until there is a significant change in the public about keeping cetaceans in captivity. Even the official Keiko website has been without updates since the winter of 2006, and most people merely remember the basic outline of the story. Hell, I picked up Brower’s book in the first place because I didn’t really remember anything outside of an attempt being made to free the whale and a hazy recollection that he had died, and it seems that Keiko’s impact was not so wide or large as was originally hoped.

I don’t think cetaceans belong in aquariums or should be engaged in breeding programs merely because it’s all about the money; the whales are not in danger in the wild and suffer psychologically from being in captivity, yet they’re what everyone goes to see at aquariums. I remember seeing them as a child at Sea World and returned to the Orlando park this past summer, only to be disgusted by what I saw. They were reduced to little more than sea-going clowns, on-stage for our amusement, and the show itself had almost a pagan flavor to it; believe in Shamu (actually Tilikum), chant the name “Shamu”, channel the power of the killer whale, etc. They didn’t actually say that last bit, but it was there was the heavy suggestion of some transcendent communion between man & animal; maybe the trainers need to keep convincing themselves of that so they can go to work every day.

In any case, in the end I’m not sure whether to think those in charge of Keiko did the right or wrong thing; it’s wonderful the whale was rehabilitated but it seemed that there were too many interests (and too many cooks) involved in the release of the whale and too much attention put on him. It’s hard to push an animal to be independent of humans when they’ve been reliant on them their entire lives and continue to have daily training sessions and contact with people. I don’t think a similar project will be undertaken anytime soon, and maybe it shouldn’t; maybe we should focus on trying to increase the care of the whales in captivity and put an end to breeding programs that keep aquariums populated with psychologically-stunted stars.





More Zoo Photos; Bears, Peafowl, & Otters

11 05 2007

Last weekend some friends and I visited the Bronx Zoo (thanks Tim!) and I snagged a few shots; nothing incredibly dazzling or new, but I thought a few people might enjoy them. First up, a tiger I had not previously seen before, although I’m not sure whether this is one recently brought to the zoo or one that I just never ran into previously;

New Tiger

Tiger Drink

As always, the black leopards of Jungle World were fast asleep, although I did manage to get a halfway decent photo this time (although I’d need to remove the crease from the glass in the background);

Black Leopard

I did get to see the otters, however, which are not typically out when I come to visit;

Otter

The second time I ever visited the zoo I came across an amazing sight; two Blesbok fighting during the beginnings of a thunderstorm. Unfortunately I hadn’t seen them since then, but I did manage to get this picture during my last visit;

Blesbok

The giraffes were out as well, although none came close enough to get a decent shot;

Giraffe

And of course, I couldn’t not drop by to see the cheetahs;

Cheetah

The grizzly bears were still playing as well, this time sloshing about in their little pool;

Bears playing

My favorite shot, however, is of one of the animals that is so ever-present in the zoo I normally don’t take the time to photograph them; a male peacock. This one was having a rest under a bush and allowed me to get close enough to get a ground-level shot;

Peacock

So there you have it; like I said, nothing especially spectacular but a few good ones in the mix. I still love visiting the zoo, but when there’s hundreds of strollers being pushed about (and of course, half the children want to walk and not be in their strollers) it’s hard to have a good time. The zoo is free on Wednesdays, but unfortunately I must work and have to fight the crowds on the weekends. As cold as it was, I almost preferred visiting when it was 26 degrees in the middle of February; then it was just me and the animals and I could take as much time as I wanted. As a whole I don’t like zoos and their focus on money rather than conservation, but I am glad that I live close enough to one of the exceptions that I can visit almost anytime.





Reuters Screws Up: White Tigers are NOT Endangered!

10 05 2007

Someone at Reuters didn’t do their research; in an article released this afternoon about 9 Bengal tiger cubs (one being white) being born inside 2 months at the Zoologico de Vallarta park in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico a reporter asserted that white tigers are endangered because they often don’t so well in the wild because they lack the proper camoflage. From the Reuters article;

The arrival of six Bengals, three each from different parents, is rare and Brisa is a coup for the endangered white Bengal tiger which often fails to survive in the wild for its lack of camouflage.

I normally don’t like to jump to conclusions, but it sounds like someone’s been inbreeding. If you think the woo would stop there, you’d be wrong. Says the vet in charge of rearing the cubs, Xochitl Nicteja;

The zoo is magical. It’s situated in such a precious area which is almost completely the animals’ natural habitat, and that has a lot to do with why they procreate happily and naturally.

Yes… “magical.” Granted, the location of the zoo may be more natural than elsewhere, and perhaps the vet used “magical” in a tongue-in-cheek way, but I would hope some more study would go into why the tigers were so prolific so that the species could be benefitted through breeding/release programs.

As I’ve written before (it’s actually my most popular post ever, being fodder for plenty of grade-school reports [or so I would assume from the comments/e-mails I get]) white tigers are not a legitimate species, subspecies, or variety of tigers. In the wild they are exceptionally rare and require both parents to at least carry (if not express) recessive genes that can cause any number of birth defects in addition to the white coat. Despite this, these tigers are popular at zoos and the majority of the public has no idea that they are produced via inbreeding, there likely being many more deformed white tigers that are never seen for every one on display.

The end of the article also suggests that the Vallarta Zoo foolishly allows guests to feed and have photo ops with some of the big cat cubs. Sure, it’s cute and it brings in money, but it’s hardly what’s best for the animal and it can put guests in a dangerous situation (just because they’re little doesn’t mean they can’t deliver a good bite or rake you with their claws). For every well-mainted, conscientious zoo there are probably 100 more in various locales throughout the world that care more about money than the animals in their charge, breeding programs or no. Still, the zoo isn’t solely to blame; shoddy reporting through mediums like the Associated Press and Reuters gives the impression that certain things are normal when they certainly are not. Am I the only one who gets pissed off when this stuff shows up on the news?





Earth Day Bronx Zoo Photos

2 05 2007

I know these are a bit belated, but here’s a few of the better photos from my last trip to the Bronx Zoo a few weekends ago. First up, two playing grizzly bears;

Bears

The zoo’s binturong (aka “Bear Cat” despite belonging to Family Viverridae) was up and about for once;

Binturong

I also managed to get a half-decent shot of this boat-billed heron, as when I saw them at the national zoo they had their bills tucked into their feathers and were facing away.

Boat

The aquatic bird house also features some stern-looking kookaburras;

Kookaburra

and this tern, angry at a black oystercatcher being kept in the same exhibit;

Tern

The male peacocks were strutting about and causing a ruckus;

Peafowl

while the toucans were a bit more subdued;

Toucans

As far as mammals go, the “Tiger Mountain” exhibit was absolutely packed but I did manage to get this shot of Zeff cooling off in a stream;

Zeff

although the black leopards of “Jungle World” were fast asleep, as ever;

Leopard

The Red River Hogs were much more active;

Red River Hog

as were the wild dogs (although this one was getting ready to take a nap);

Wild Dog

Finally, there was another bunch of baby gorillas romping around with their parents this year, although some mothers didn’t seem as enthralled by the youngsters as the human onlookers;

Gorillas





Photos from the National Zoo; Pandas, Wolves, Gharials, and More!

15 04 2007

Looking back, Saturday seems like a dream. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that I only slept 2 and 1/2 hours before getting up at 2 AM to drive to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and spend the day with my wife and her parents. Lack of sleep aside, never have I been to a zoo with such wide species diversity, and while I still consider the Bronx Zoo to be the best I’ve ever been to, I was absolutely amazed by many of the residents of the National Zoo.

My wife and I arrived at 6:30 AM, hoping to see most of the animals in the zoo while they were still active. Unfortunately, most of the animals don’t make an appearance until later in the morning and the various houses didn’t open until 8:30 and 10:00 AM, so other than the occassional jogger there wasn’t much to see. Up in a tree, however, were two Red Pandas sleeping in, and here’s one of them in the early-morning light;

Red Pandas

A Mara, in contrast to the sleeping Red Pandas, was up and about;

Mara

Around the time that my in-laws arrived more of the animals were out on display, although before proceeding my wife wanted a picture of us together next to a statue of a sloth bear. Here it is, both of us looking rather unsettled because the sun was in our eyes and we were trying to communicate how to work my camera;

Us

One of my most favorite animals from the zoo was the Maned Wolf, although unfortunately their enclosure didn’t allow me to photograph them without a doghouse or chain fence in the background;

Maned Wolf

The miniscule Tammar Wallabies were also a highlight. Despite my appreciation for wildlife, every time I see them something in my head goes “Aww, whosanitsybitsy then?”

Tammar Wallaby

We also saw a rather old Spectacled Bear, and for some reason this particular one reminded me of Jeremy Irons. In any case, I have never seen one with an overall blond face (normally they have blond lines/patches that make them appear “spectacled”);

Spectacled Bear

I also finally got to see a Caracal in the flesh, although this was one angry cat. Frustrated that it couldn’t visit it’s other enclosure or get the birds on the outside, it wasn’t too happy when I stooped down to take its picture;

Caracal

Several cheetahs were also on display, a male desperately seeking the affection of this young female (although they were separated by a fence);

cheetah

I also got to see two 10-month old Bengal Tigers at the zoo, although their enclosure wasn’t exactly condusive to good photography. Here’s one of them after making an attempt to snag a bird that entered the enclosure;

Young Tiger

Speaking of young animals, two young sea lions were playing “king of the rock” in their enclosure;

Sea Lions

Two young otter brothers were also a bit scrappy, chasing each other about their enclosure and taking dirt/pine needle baths;

Otter

Other small mammals were also active during our visit, including a Banded Mongoose and some Meerkats;

Mongoose

Meerkats

Some of the local fauna proved to be just as interesting as the exotics; we spotted two white-tailed deer in the zoo as well as this small bird that had collected a flamingo feather for its nest;

Bird

I also finally obtained a photograph of one of my favorite animals, the Giant Elephant Shrew;

Elephant Shrew

While I am absolutely enthralled by mammals, I was also overjoyed to see a male and female Gharial up close in the Reptile House. Here’s the female, just before slipping into the water to join the male;

Gharial

The Great Ape House also provided for some good photographic opportunities, especially some young gorillas and an oranguatan that used some cardboard as a sun hat. In fact, many of the orangs at the zoo seemed to like cardboard as a hat, blanket, etc., which I had never seen before.

Gorilla

Oranguatan

Speaking of primates, this small tree shrew in the Small Mammal House slowed down long enough for me to get a good picture of it. Just seeing how it handled its food and used its hands left no doubt in my mind that primates are derived from such creatures;

Tree Shrew

I also encountered an animal I had never heard of before; the African Pygmy Falcon.

Pygmy Falcon

A Mouse Deer also made a brief appearance during our visit;

Mouse Deer

But what about the Giant Pandas? Well I was able to shoulder my way through the crowd of photographers and snag plenty of pictures of the young panda residing at the zoo;

Panda Sit

Panda Log

Panda Tree

Panda

While the young panda was certainly cute and very entertaining (i.e. watching a panda scale a tree for a good scratch), my most favorite moment from Saturday involved a female Mexican Wolf (a subspecies of Grey Wolf). When I arrived at the enclosure the three females were pacing back and forth near the back of their enclosure, stopping every now and then to look at my wife and I. There was no way I was going to get a good picture, but I discovered the cage was connected to another one the wolves could access, and after waiting a moment one of them came over to the front for a drink. After lapping up some water she took a long look at me and rejoined her pack, and here’s my favorite picture that resulted from my stroke of luck;

Wolf

While the 4 hour drive each way wasn’t very fun, I did highly enjoy myself at the zoo and hope to return soon. Even so, I would love to see these animals in the wild someday. While I certainly have some ok pictures, there’s not much of a story to them; “I walked by the enclosure and the wolf looked at me,” isn’t an experience that’s earned. Granted, in the wild I would get nowhere near as close to these animals nor be able to get them to “pose” for me, but I would much rather catch a fleeting glimpse of a wolf or jaguar than know they only exist in zoos and memories.