or Them Zoos.
Zoos are a hot-button issue nowadays. Just a few days ago, I read a letter-to-the-editor in a Costa Rican publication inveighing against all zoos. The author of this letter demands that zoos, including all “so-called” sanctuaries, are to be condemned. In the writer’s opinion, zoos only exist to cater to human vanity. I beg to differ. In his eyes, though, as a biologist, I’m just part of the problem, not a person educated in the field, who might possibly offer solutions. But in spite of some activists’ opinion, professionalism and a sound education, in conjunction with smart fundraising, are required to attempt to save a few of the many threatened species for future generations. Emotional knee-jerk reactions rarely solve problems, they just make the kneejerkers feel better about themselves.
Extinction happens. Species come and go, some die out gradually, others during catastrophic events. But continued human disregard for the importance, the necessity even, of a balanced natural world is a root cause of the accelerated and rapid disappearance of animals in the modern world. As yet, commercial interests supersede conservation demands. However, humans are part of the natural world too. Men and women have to have jobs to feed their families. We have to learn new ways of inclusive thinking to develop modern principles that may help to create a healthier world. One example of such a different attitude is the guardian dog program initiated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. Kangal dogs, Turkish livestock guardians, are raised by the foundation and given to farmers to protect their herds, thus the farmers no longer need to kill the endangered cats because their livelihood is protected from predation. A classic win-win! Among several other American and European dogs, our own Kangal dog Otto graciously donated sperm for the Namibian Kangal breeding program.
Very gradually there has been some development toward sustainability, but it is a hard uphill struggle against lobbying interests in the industrialized world and hunger in the developing world.
Zoological Parks are well positioned to further our understanding of the natural world in which we humans should be leaders for a common good. Zoos have a twofold mission consisting of educating the general public, especially children, about ecology and animal welfare, as well as attempt to rescue doomed species. For both tasks, one needs oodles of money. Thus, the better organized, the more professionally run a zoo, a wildlife park, or a sanctuary is, the better.
Any zoo, circus or bear baiting ring, any facility that abuses the animals in their care should indeed be closed and the animals contained therein rescued if at all possible. Anyone who profits from such a despicable enterprise should be severally punished. But please let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Without educational and breeding programs, we would already be even poorer in animal diversity.
Zoos Victoria has three very different facilities. One is the Melbourne Zoo, right in the city. But there is also a conservation and rescue sanctuary for Australian wildlife, the Healesville Sanctuary, and the Werribee Open Range Zoo for African safari style adventures.
Our visit to the Melbourne Zoo opened with sleeping peccaries. Under the name of javelina, we’re quite familiar with these rough-haired ungulates from the American SW. They’re native to the Americas and shouldn’t be confused with the global scourge of feral pigs, Sus scrofa. Peccary and razorbacks aren’t related!
Next door to the lazy peccaries we found a lone tapir, Tapirus terrestris, Tapiridae, also native to the Americas.
Tapirs are listed as threatened, several species like Baird’s tapir of Central America and the mountain tapir, are in danger of extinction. The main concern for the survival of these forest dwellers is the loss of their habitat. Human activity not only shrinks their living space but, even more critically, it fragments their habitat. Genetic fragmentation prevents the essential genetic exchange between breeding populations to sustain viable gene pools for species survival. For the mountain tapir, this is leading to their imminent extinction because the captive breeding population goes back to a single foundation pair.
We were quite unhappy about the tapir’s enclosure. Tapirs roam the forest in a well-established network of pathways crisscrossing dense underbrush, preferably located close to rivers and waterholes. They like to dive and feed on the soft shoots of water plants, using their prehensile proboscis to reach for greenery while little fish clean insects off their hide. And waterholes provide cooling lounge areas against tropical heat. Tapirs are pretty massive guys, in the Brazilian Amazon basin they are the largest land mammal, and with their tough hides, they’re not afraid of jaguars or anacondas, or even crocodiles. But these tough guys, relatives of horse and rhinoceros, are shy and they really like to hide, something this tapir enclosure didn’t afford.
A short distance from the ungulates, past this intriguing flowering tree,
we found the Koalas, Phascolarctos cinereus, Phascolarctidae. Finally an Australian species!
Just past the three sleeping koalas [only one was fully visible], we entered an amazing aviary, so huge that the enclosing netting faded into the background. The walkway for visitors was elevated to leave ground dwellers undisturbed.
Quite fascinating to watch was the sleepy ground-dwelling Bush Stone-curlew, Burhinus grallarius, Burhinidae, a nocturnal bird native to Australia which is famous for its ungainly frozen postures when threatened.
And then there was this spoonbill, a Royal Spoonbill, Platalea regia, no less, which clearly didn’t stick to his prescribed aquatic diet. It took him the better part of a minute to force that furry rodent down his throat.
One decidedly stunning looking bird was the Jabiru, outside of Australia better known as the Black-necked stork, Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus australis or Xenorhynchus australis, Ciconiidae, the only member of the stork family native to Australia. An exceedingly large bird, standing up to 1.50 m tall with a wingspan of over 2 m or 90″.
This is a female Jabiru, as the only sexual dimorphism displayed in the storks is a different iris color, yellow for girls, brown for boys.
For some Aboriginal groups, the Jabiru carries great cultural importance, as it is the totem animal for some people and the consumption of stork meat is often taboo. Breaking this restriction may threaten the life of pregnant women in the tribe. There is also an Aboriginal creation story relating the long stork bill to a spear that went right through the bird’s head. The 19th-century ornithologist Gould described stork meat as unpalatable and fishy in flavor. While reading about the black-necked stork, I came across a blog of an Australian birder and photographer, Deb Pearse. I saw two stork-related posts, I believe you would greatly enjoy, one from 2013 and another one from 2014. Zoo images just can’t compete with the beauty of animals in their natural environment. Thank you, Deb!
A few steps further in the aviary, I saw these two gorgeous male Red-tailed black cockatoos, Calyptorhynchus banksii, Cacatuidae.
The red parrot in the background may be a female Eclectus roratus, Psittaculidae, native to Australia, the Molukkas, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. They stand out among parrots for their extreme color dimorphism. Males are completely green, females red. But, I know next to nothing about birds, so this is just another one of my wild guesses.
In some of the more swampy areas of the huge aviary, we watched ducks and egrets and ibis and who knows what else.
Among them a Pied heron or Pied egret, Ardea picata, Ardeidae, a very astute hunter.
Leaving the birds behind, we turned back toward the Australian marsupials, rushing toward the enclosure allegedly housing my beloved, beleaguered Tasmanian Devils [Sarcophilus harrisii, Dasyuridae] merely to be bitterly disappointed. This is the only devil we got to see!
If there were any living Tassie Devils, we didn’t see them.
But we did do a little better with the nocturnal wombats, one of which was eagerly and completely against type munching in the glaring sunlight.
We also found a sizable herd of Kangaroo Island kangaroos, all of them sleeping in the afternoon heat, as were the emus housed in the same enclosure.
The Kangaroo Island kangaroos, Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus, which are endemic to the island, are a subspecies of the Western Grey kangaroo, M. fuliginosus. The islanders are a bit smaller and darker brown in appearance than their mainland cousins.
Next, we came upon an African relative of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.
Meerkats, Suricata suricatta, Herpestidae, are small versions of the Eurasian mongooses. In Asia, they’re known for their acetylcholinergic resistance to cobra venom, while the African meerkats seem to withstand the deadly scorpion poison of their regions. Either way, they’re rugged little guys!
Not so little were the following tough guys, Painted Wolfs or African Wild Dogs, Lycaon pictus, Canidae, yet another endangered species.
The four brothers, Saba, Maana, Samawhati, and Duara roamed their enclosure at dizzying speed, following a particular pattern over and over again in endless, mindless repetition. Their territory was large by human standard, but inadequate for such endurance hunters of the African savannahs, in my opinion.
The sections of viewing glass inserted in the dense vegetation surrounding the kennel were small and set well above the ground, thus affording as little interference as possible, but the painted wolfs clearly noticed us and reacted to our movements.
Painted wolfs live in tight-knit packs with a highly developed social structure. The oldest female leads the female pack members, while the males compete for leadership dominance. They recognize each other from afar by their unique coat pattern. Elderly family members and sick dogs are looked after and fed by active hunters. After weaning, pups are fed by all pack members and are allowed to feed first after a kill. Only the leading pair breeds usually. If a subordinate bitch whelps a litter, the dominant bitch may take the pups and raise them as her own, or, if there are too many pups in the pack for a healthy balance, she will kill them. Male offspring stays with the birth pack, while the females are evicted after they mature to join an unrelated pack. African wild dogs are endurance runners, executing coordinated pack hunts by shadowing their prey and chasing it into exhaustion before taking it down. They usually prey on medium-sized ungulates like gazelles and antelopes, sometimes also zebras. Statistically, over 50% of their diet consists of Impala. During a hunt, the dogs communicate through ear positions and the movements of their white-tasselled tails in a kind of sign-language. Painted wolfs are considered to be one of the most highly socialized carnivorous mammals.
In order to provide some aspect of their social hunting behavior to the captive Painted wolfs, the zoo invented a feeding device which necessitates collaboration between the members of the pack to have a successful “hunt”. The feeder is rigged in a way that one pack member has to pull on a rope to lower a nice, bloody chunk of meat for the others. The zoo tries to offer challenges like this to keep the animals mentally and physically healthy. In the wild, unfortunately, these beautiful canids are endangered and we may not enjoy the engaging fellows much longer.
And again we hop from continent to continent and clade to clade. From Africa back to Australia, and Mammalia back to Aves, specifically the unique Australian penguin, the Little Penguin, Eudyptula minor, Spheniscidae, also known as Fairie Penguin, Little Blue Penguin, or Korora in Maori.
But before we continue with the little fairies, allow me to vent about the Melbourne Zoo aquarium. Lots of murky spaces and empty tanks, that’s it. Except for the pathetic display of two seals, each in its own small and totally bare space. That was a disgrace to be sure! It took us a while to walk through this bizarre non-exhibit, finally emerging back outside on a different level, it seemed, to find the penguin enclosure behind the aquarium.
One bird stood out among his blue, sleek compadres. Rotund, fluffy and brownish, he didn’t seem to fit in. Even from our distant position across the pond, this bird appeared to be an interloper. A penguin of a different species, perhaps? A chick, perhaps? I didn’t know and there was no one to ask, as the aquarium seemed to be completely deserted of staff.
Viewing my pictures now, I venture to say it might have been a juvenile bird about to undergo its final molt into adulthood. Just speculating, though.
Near our little fairies, we found a small beach, if you will, home to two Australian Pelicans, Pelecanus conspicillatus, Pelecanidae. These short-legged fishermen are the largest waterbirds in their native Oceania.
How can you top that? Possibly with a cute carnivorous Red Panda that eats mostly bamboo leaves?
Red pandas, Ailurus fulgens, Ailuridae, are ancient animals living in high-altitude temperate forests. There are two known subspecies. A. f. fulgens, the Western red panda is found in northern India, Sikkim, Bhutan, and also in Nepal, the native home of our little “bear-cat” here, as they’re called by some locals because of their cat-like grooming habits. The Styan’s red panda, A. f. styani, the eastern subspecies, lives in northern Myanmar, extending into China. All Red pandas are threatened by deforestation causing genetic fragmentation and are listed as an endangered species.
Red pandas aren’t related to any other extant animals, least of all the Giant panda. But just like the Giant pandas, Red pandas are bamboo specialists. Even though Red pandas also eat eggs, small critters, berries, and roots, over 90% of their diet consists of bamboo leaves and soft shoots. Since they have a simple carnivore’s stomach without the ability to process cellulose, they must eat a lot whilst moving as little as possible to conserve energy. There are many intriguing facts known about this survivor of a long past geological age, one of which are their hairy paw pads, similar to polar bear’s paws, to keep warm and stay safe on slippery branches. You’ll find a lot more information here and here (scroll down past the ‘overview’) and also here.
Leaving the Red panda behind, we walked past a variety of birds,
in particular several birds which are much hated free-range pests, also some barely visible Psittacidae and one of the Australian signature kingfishers, the Blue-winged Kookaburra, Dacelo leachii, Alcedinidae, also called Howling jackass. The Genus name Dacelo is an anagram of Alcedo, the Latin word for a kingfisher. I’m not making this up, biologists want to have fun, too!
We also encountered a chameleon which eyed us rather critically,
before we stumbled upon the prosimian enclosure – just in time for feeding, as it turned out.
We entered the Lemur enclosure through an anteroom designed to trap potential escapees. The outer door has to be closed before one is allowed to open the inner door and vice-versa.
The Ring-tailed lemur, Lemur catta, Lemuridae [suborder: Strepsirrhini] was not really running away from me, rather it was moving closer to the doorway in anticipation of the keeper’s arrival with the big orange lunch cooler.
Lemurs are diurnal and social animals, living in female-dominated groups, while many other prosimians are solitary night dwellers. Prosimians are primates but they lack a few characteristics typical for monkeys and apes. They have protruding snouts, thus prosimian eyes may not fully face forward, instead, they have a more highly developed sense of smell than apes. Although prosimian thumbs are opposed, they aren’t quite as dexterous as simians. Lower cognitive abilities assigned to prosimians are related to their smaller neocortex ratio relative to higher primates. Lemurs, however, have demonstrated that they are quite capable of executing complex tasks. The obsolete but still used term “prosimiae” meaning “before” or “earlier than” simians, monkeys & apes, is a misnomer. Neither monkeys nor Hominidae evolved from strepsirrhini, a clade which radiated away from our common primate ancestor 80 million years ago.
This is Alfred the Nasty. He learned very quickly that he gets food rewards when he bites visitors [to lure him away from his human victims]. He now has his own keeper feeding him away from the humans who pay extra to have close encounters during feeding sessions. On the big rocks in front of Al was a water dragon who also got her share of fresh fruit treats.
The Australian water dragon, Intellagama lesueurii, Agamidae, is an excellent climber and swimmer. If threatened they can dive for over an hour to escape predators. This, I believe, was a female I. l. howittii dragon.
This fellow was perched for the longest time, watching his buddy Nasty Al being fed. He was sitting quite still, allowing a nice little Lemur head study.
The lemur enclosure concluded our visit to the city zoo with which we were quite disappointed. There seemed to be several inadequate pens and the aquatic display areas were dingy or too small for their occupants. The balance between well executed and poor enclosures was lopsided. But most of all, we were disappointed to see so few Australian animals. In order to remedy that shortfall, we traveled to the Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley a couple of days later. It’s a two-hour trip by train and bus into rural Victoria and well worth the effort. I’ll tell you all about it next.