L.A. Zoo U.

By Brenda Scott Royce

Jane Goodall with the L.A. Zoo great ape team at the Zoo’s Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains habitat. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

This article originally ran in the Spring 2013 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. We’re sharing it again on social media as part of National Zoo Keeper Week, to highlight more about what it takes to care for animals here and in the wild.

Zoos are commonly viewed as centers of education for the people who visit them. From children’s camps and classes to adult lectures and docent-led tours, there’s an abundance of learning opportunities available to guests of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. But what of the folks who work here? It turns out that, much like medical, legal, and academic professionals, zoo staff members continually seek to expand their knowledge of their chosen field—and to share their expertise with others.

Gorilla Kelly channeling "The Thinker." Photo by Jamie Pham.

From AZAD to Zoobiquity

Conferences are the most common forum for continuing education in the zoo field. A review of the travel agenda for the collective Zoo staff for the past few years would reveal an alphabet soup of acronyms—AAZK (American Association of Zoo Keepers), AAZV (American Association of Zoo Veterinarians), ABMA (Animal Behavior Management Alliance), AZH (Association of Zoological Horticulture), and NAI (National Association for Interpretation), to name just a few—each representing a subset of zoological industry and inquiry. Most of these professional associations organize annual gatherings at which members share information and advice relative to their specialty.

The value of these events is manifold. Staff report on their own experiences and brainstorm on how to incorporate ideas from other institutions into their own programs. In addition to formal lectures and presentations, conferences present excellent opportunities to network with colleagues from around the world. Such informal interactions—strengthening connections and sharing personal challenges and successes—are often cited as a prime benefit of conference attendance.

Animal Keeper Nicki Piepers with duikers. Photo by Jamie Pham.

In September, Animal Keeper Nicki Piepers attended the fourth International Congress on Zookeeping (ICZ), which took place in Singapore. “The conference program was packed with informative and interesting paper and poster sessions covering varied husbandry topics, animal training, and enrichment,” Piepers says, adding that the event drew attendees from six continents. “Being exposed to such a broad international scope of ideas was enlightening and addictive.”

In his role as Zoo Aquarist, Thomas Taira is responsible for the life-support systems of 19 different exhibits throughout the Zoo, “from tadpoles to elephants.” At the annual symposium of the AALSO (Aquatic Animal Life Support Operators), he evaluates new products and learns about technological advancements. A smaller conference unites life-support professionals from Southern California zoos and aquariums in a form that is more solution-oriented. “We discuss problems we’ve encountered at our institutions, and brainstorm solutions,” Taira says.

Aquarist Thomas Taira installing a water level indicator. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

In the U.S., the grandaddy of all zoo conferences is the annual gathering of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for American zoos. Hosted by a different zoo each year, the event draws nearly two thousand people from all walks of zoo life. The panels and presentations tend less toward animal care than the administrative side of the zoo world: education, promotion, volunteerism, philanthropy, and technology. (The AZA’s mid-year meeting focuses more on animal management.)

The weeklong conference also serves as the setting for numerous advisory group and committee meetings. There are icebreakers, side tours, an exhibit hall where vendors of zoo-related products and services can show off their wares, and an awards banquet recognizing leaders in conservation and exhibitry. For Zoo Director John Lewis, the highlight of last year’s conference in Phoenix, Arizona, was accepting a “significant achievement” award on behalf of the Los Angeles Zoo for the Elephants of Asia habitat. The award recognizes excellence in the area of live animal display and exhibit design by an AZA institution.

In 2017, the L.A. Zoo received the AZA's North American Conservation Award for the California Condor Bi-national Recovery and Reintroduction Program. Photo of condor egg candling, by Jamie Pham. https://www.lazoo.org/2017/09/condor-award/

Europe’s counterpart to the AZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), also hosts a large-scale conference. Curator Mammals Jeff Holland began attending the conference eight years ago, hoping to bridge what he perceived as a communication gap between American and European zoos. “For me, attending the EAZA conferences has really been an eye opener,” he says. “Getting a different perspective on how to manage certain species, and finding out what’s working or not working over there, is really helpful.”

Holland stressed that maintaining sustainable animal populations requires an increasingly global approach—and that international conferences can facilitate connections that aid in those efforts. He points to a productive outcome of September’s EAZA conference which took place in Innsbruck, Austria. Following a talk by conservation biologist Bill Robichaud, whose work focuses on the saola, a rare South Asian ungulate, Holland relates, “One of my friends from a zoo in Scotland stood up and said, ‘We need to do something now if we are going to save this species,'” The impromptu comment spurred immediate action. “A bunch of us got together at a side meeting, and we developed a game plan on how to try to conserve saola,” Holland says.

The Zoo itself has hosted numerous conferences over the years, including two major events in the last six months—the second Zoobiquity Conference and the 25th Annual Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents (AZAD) Conference. Planning is currently underway for the next Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP) husbandry workshop, which will be held at the Zoo in October.

Hosting a conference or workshop involves a tremendous amount of work, says Curator of Mammals Jennie Becker, who is helping to coordinate the orangutan event along with Megan Fox, Candace Sclimenti, and other members of the Zoo’s Great Ape Team, “But the benefits of hosting it definitely outweigh the work.” The home-field advantage not only facilitates attendance and participation for L.A. Zoo staff, but also comes with bragging rights. “It’s exciting to be able to share our orangutan exhibit and program with others who work with the species,” Becker says. “We’re really proud of the work we do here.”

On a smaller scale, conservationists from all over the world have given presentations to Zoo staff and volunteers, often at the invitation of the AAZK. Recent guests include Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation; Heiner Jacken, chairman of the German chapter of the World Pheasant Association; and Roland Wirth, founder of the Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations.

In 2017, Animal Keeper Megan Fox attended a great ape workshop in China. Photo of Fox with L.A. Zoo orangutans, by Tad Motoyama. https://www.lazoo.org/2017/06/great-ape-workshop/

Putting the ‘Work’ in Workshop

While it may be true that a zebra never changes its stripes, nor a leopard its spots, caring for these species and the rest of the Zoo’s inhabitants is an ever-evolving discipline.

In addition to the general zoological conferences mentioned above, events focusing on specific species or taxa bring together people working with those animals in order to enhance their care. Senior Animal Keeper Robin Noll and Animal Keeper Mike Bona were among those in attendance at the first-ever Giraffe Care Conference in 2010, where the topics included nutrition, enrichment, veterinary procedures, and hoof work. Noll presented a video of one of the Zoo’s Masai giraffes being immobilized for a hoof trim.

Animal Keeper Marlowe Robertson with a giant horned lizard. Photo by Jamie Pham.

In July 2012, Animal Keeper Marlowe Robertson presented a paper about giant horned lizard husbandry and reproduction at the 35th International Herpetological Symposium in Hanover, Maryland. In anticipation of the Zoo’s acquisition of wombats, Senior Animal Keeper Robin Parker and Animal Keeper Krissy Parada recently attended a husbandry workshop for the species hosted by Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo.

“Those kinds of workshops are really valuable to people who are working with that particular species, because they hear different strategies for managing particular situations in zoos,” says Becker.

A Study in Studbooks

Above and beyond their daily duties at the Zoo, several staff members serve as SSP coordinators, steering committee members, or studbook keepers. SSPs are programs that manage species to maintain a sustainable captive population. Studbooks are one of the tools by which they accomplish this goal.

Studbook keepers document all births, deaths, and transfers for their particular species in AZA-accredited and approved zoos, but their duties go beyond recordkeeping to encompass genetic and demographic analysis, and transfer and breeding recommendations.

Animal Keeper Chris Rodriguez was appointed to oversee the newly created studbook for the Santa Catalina Island rattleless rattlesnake, a species for which the L.A. Zoo launched the captive breeding program. Jennifer Gonsman, a keeper on the Great Ape Team, recently became the SSP coordinator and studbook keeper for black howler monkeys. Other studbooks managed by L.A. Zoo staff include Calamian deer, steenbok, yellow-footed rock wallaby, red river hog, and Cape griffon vulture.

Curator of Reptiles Ian Recchio with Animal Keeper Chris Rodriguez and an Indian gharial. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

Taking on these leadership roles gives one a broader perspective of animal care, says Becker. “It’s not the same as being an animal keeper, where you take care of the same group of animals. Suddenly you’re responsible for animals all over the United States, and in some cases, internationally. It’s a nice opportunity for our staff to get involved at a higher level.”

Taking on the role of studbook keeper requires intensive training. “The AZA offers a course through George Mason University,” explains Curator of Amphibians and Reptiles Ian Recchio. “It’s a weeklong program, with lessons on recordkeeping, genetics, and demography, among other things.”

In addition to population management and conservation courses, the AZA offers numerous other professional development programs. Last February, Education Curator Coral Barreiro completed the Conservation Education course, which offers instruction in how to design, develop, implement and evaluate education programs and exhibit interpretive elements. (The Zoo’s Director of Education, Kirsten Perez, taught the same course from 2003 to 2008).

Hands-On Education

A great deal of the educational endeavors discussed in this article were funded through GLAZA’s Travel Fund, which allocates a certain dollar amount each year toward conferences, courses, and related activities. Additionally, GLAZA funds opportunities for field study through the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Grant and the Duttenhaver Animal Conservation Field Study Program, both of which have been featured prominently in these pages.

“The Sloan Grant affords our keeper staff invaluable experience working with the wild counterparts of species we have here in the Zoo,” says GLAZA President Connie Morgan.

The Duttenhaver Program aims to help young people interested in science careers explore field research. GLAZA Web Editor Stacey Hagreen was one of three Zoo staff who mentored high school students on last year’s Duttenhaver trip, which took them on a riverboat expedition to Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The experience proved enriching not only for the students, but also the mentors, says Hagreen. “Being a firsthand witness to the incredible diversity of the rainforest and working alongside scientists involved with wildlife conservation and habitat preservation directly enhanced my ability to communicate the Zoo’s mission—particularly with regard to our upcoming Rainforest of the Americas exhibit.”

The Duttenhaver recipients in Peru.

The Write Stuff

With so much discovery taking place at the Zoo, it’s not surprising that several staff members—notable in the veterinary, animal care, and research divisions—have published their findings in academic journals and books.

Becker was lead author on a chapter about uakaris in captivity in Ecology and Conservation of Titis, Sakis, and Uacaris, soon to be released by Cambridge University Press. Becker’s expertise on the subject stems from the fact that the L.A. Zoo is the only zoo i the country to house uakaris.

Similarly, the Zoo’s unprecedented success in breeding giant horned lizards resulted in a paper by Recchio and his staff that will appear in a forthcoming issue of Herpetological Review.

“Really, there are only two or three people who know a whole lot about giant horned lizards, and they are here at this zoo,” Recchio boasts, adding that other species similarly have their champions, and it’s up to those specialists to pass that knowledge on to others. “Ninety percent of the folks that come to the Zoo don’t realize how much the Zoo extends itself and its knowledge to people, and how we also go out and seek more.”

The Next Generation

The thirst for knowledge that drives so many in the zoo field to further their own education also propels them to share it with others—particularly those aspiring to conservation-related careers. Various Zoo divisions, including Animal Health, Research, and Publications, offer internships to college students; and several staffers devote time to teaching on and off Zoo grounds.

“Part of being a curator is being a teacher,” says Recchio. In addition to partnering with the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL) on a long-term study of Mexican herpetofauna, he travels to other zoos, college campuses, and meetings of herpetological societies to lecture or consult. On a recent trip to Japan, he discussed the design of the new LAIR exhibit with a society of future zoo professionals.

Recchio, along with Curator of Birds Susie Kasielke and Senior Keeper Dorothy Belanger, lecture each semester to students in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College, of which many L.A. Zoo keepers are alumni.

Animal Keeper Jennifer Kuypers (right) with students of the EATM program. Photo by Jamie Pham.

Universities throughout the region take advantage of the Zoo’s proximity to introduce their students to various aspects of the biological science. “At least once a year there’s a mammalogy class from Cal Poly Pomona that visits,” Holland says, citing just one example of many. “We give them a behind-the-scenes tour and talk about how we manage the species here; basically a crash course in what the Zoo is all about.”

The Zoo itself serves as a classroom for those seeking to enter to zoo field. Each fall, Dr. Cathleen Cox, the Zoo’s Director of Research, teaches a course in conjunction with UCLA Extension, “Observing Animals: Behavioral Studies in Zoos.” The course blends class work with practical application, as students participate in a study project on selected species at the Zoo.

“In college, you don’t learn the methods of behavioral research,” Cox explains. “You learn the subject, but you aren’t taught how to do it. I think learning how to do it is a lot different than learning about the results.”

Indeed, reading a statistic about the effect a particular exhibit modification has on an animal’s behavior is one thing; personally observing that animal and using scientific methods to record its behavior and analyze the data to come up with that finding is quite another.

Dr. Cox measuring sound levels using a decibel reader at L.A. Zoo Lights. Photo by Jamie Pham.

The Animal Keeper Training Class, offered every two or three years at the Zoo, provides aspiring animal keepers the chance to get a foot in the door of this highly competitive field. “It is a unique opportunity for those interested in the care and conservation of wildlife to learn from our professional staff and to work directly with animal keepers,” says Kasielke, one of the coordinators of the course.

An equally intensive training class for provisional docents is offered annually, along with an abbreviated course for student volunteers.

The Zoo and its operations are dissected by students enrolled in “The Zoo,” an innovative course offered through Cal State University, Channel Islands.

Research and Recovery

In addition to the studies conducted by our own Research Division, a number of projects have been carried out on Zoo grounds. Holland and other staff members joined Cooper Ecological Monitoring, a biological consulting firm, in a long-term survey of the remaining populations of Western gray squirrels in Griffith Park. “We’re collaborating on the study,” says Holland, “and also hoping to take it further and develop a recovery plan.”

Zoo staff members also serve as consultants on a number of field projects, notably the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project and the California Condor Recovery Program, based on our history of managing those species.

Endangered peninsula pronghorn antelopes, Antilocapra Americana peninsularis. This is one of North America's rarest mammals, with fewer than 200 surviving in the wild.

Continuing Commitment

Each day at the Zoo offers new challenges and new opportunities to learn. From animal caregivers to those who raise funds to enhance our ability to care, from public relations to public safety, educators to editors, in every office and behind each exhibit throughout the Zoo, you’ll find individuals actively engaged in increasing their knowledge or refining their techniques. They keep up-to-date on emerging trends and evolving information relevant to their tasks. They take courses and attend seminars and build networks so they can develop the resources to be successful.

The examples throughout this issue of Zoo View represent only a sampling of the ongoing efforts of Zoo staff to learn, teach, and grow—and the ways in which the Zoo itself can be a catalyst for professional development.

“The Zoo as an institution strives to improve its capacity to get more information to better care for the animals,” says Cox. “That’s one of the great things about working here. When we have ideas, questions, we are open to exploring them. It’s a great learning environment.”     ☐

This article originally ran in the Spring 2013 issue of Zoo View, the award-winning quarterly publication of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association. A subscription is complimentary with any level of membership. For information about how you can celebrate National Zoo Keeper Week, please visit lazoo.org/zookeeperweek. #NZKW2018