Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family planning for big cats

Senior Keeper, Kate Stone with Josie
A large part of being a zoo keeper is getting to know your animals. Being familiar with their individual personalities and their day-to-day behaviour is an essential part of good animal care since changes in their behaviour could indicate injury or illness. Often their behaviour can change according to their breeding cycle.

With some animals this change can be quite radical and potentially dangerous; a normally passive, cooperative reindeer can change into a real threat to safety overnight.

When it comes to the big cats they are never considered safe. Management is always a two-person job and we have strict safety protocols in place for even the most routine tasks.

As reported here by Senior Keeper, Hannah, we recently lost the pride of our collection, Solomon, the male African Lion. He shared his enclosure with his daughter, Josie so it was extremely important that we manage their ability to breed as well as the behavioural consequences of the breeding cycle.

We always knew when changes in the lions’ behaviour were related to breeding. They would both lose interest in food and for Solomon breeding was the one thing on his mind – he wouldn’t leave Josie alone! In the wild there is only one dominant male, he is top-dog, and the rewards for being the fittest and the strongest are the rights to breed with the females. Solomon was always top-dog.

During the breeding cycle Solomon would follow her around and stand over her whenever she lay down just in case another male wanted to mate with her, despite the fact that they were the only lions in the enclosure! In all his time here the nearest male lion was in Paignton Zoo but that didn’t stop Solomon performing in every respect like a dominant male with a territory and a female to protect.

For Josie the behaviour was a little different. First, she’d begin to flirt, which Solomon didn't seem to mind at all. However, after a while the honeymoon period would come to an end and she’d grow rapidly tired of Solomon’s attention. With Solomon being her constant shadow, she would become grumpy and irritable. This is very species-typical behaviour and in the wild it would usually lead to the pair losing all interest in food and instead spending several days together mating.

Since they were related, Josie was given a contraceptive implant which would have to be replaced every three years. The most recent replacement was on 30th November 2012.

The implant is injected just under the skin, a procedure that takes about 30 seconds. However, managing big cats is never that simple. Before we can get to that point there’s a whole lot of work to be done.

In order to get close enough to Josie to perform the procedure safely she must first be sedated inside her pen in the lion house. Once she was inside, Mike our Head Keeper, who is part of the firearms team, used the dart gun to deliver the anaesthetic. Putting animals under anaesthetic, especially big cats, is quite a risky business for both keepers and cat. When dealing with an animal that has three inch long sharp retractable claws and mighty jaws containing canine teeth four inches long, which they can open to 12 inches wide, safety is all important.

However, it’s also risky for the cat. She would have to be sedated enough to ensure she wouldn't wake up during the procedure, but not given so much that she might not wake up when given the reversal drugs. An average lioness can weigh between 110kg-140kg, animals Josie's size and bigger are not really designed to be knocked out, their body weight can be quite a strain when under the influence of anaesthetic.

To keep the procedure as stress free as possible, only Mike and our vet went into the house when they were ready to dart her. Everyone else waited outside being very quiet.

Once she was darted it took around 10 to 15 minutes for the drugs to take effect. To be sure that she was fully asleep the vet checked her for reactions. It was lucky that she had decided to lie down against the mesh of her pen so the vet could touch her easily whilst he stood safely in the keeper corridor of the house.

Once the vet was happy that she was fully sedated he could enter the pen to complete the procedure by injecting the contraceptive implant under the skin between her shoulder-blades.

After only a few minutes of full sedation she was given the reversal drugs by manual injection and within 20 minutes she was up and about in the house no doubt wondering what had happened.

After this kind of procedure it was crucial that Josie remained under observation to ensure that she recovered properly. One keeper stayed in the house making sure she was behaving as expected. Once everyone was happy that she was in good health she was let back out into the enclosure with Solomon.

For keepers participating in veterinary procedures like this is a huge perk of the job, and it's not every day you get to see something like this.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper

Monday, 18 February 2013

DZP Declares the Start of Summer

Baby meerkats enjoying the sunshine
Encouraged by the recent improvement in the weather, Plymouth attraction, Dartmoor Zoo has declared the start of summer and moved into its summer timetable six weeks ahead of schedule.

Based on the edge of Dartmoor, the zoo has borne the brunt of recent severe weather conditions including torrential rain, snow and high winds.

Operations manager, George Hyde has been counting the cost. “The weather is the one thing over which we have no control,” he says. “We’ve pulled out all the stops with special offers, free kids ticket promotions and such, but despite enthusiastic up-take, if the weather is against us then people just don’t come.”

Turning off the visitors is not the only negative impact the weather has on the zoo. In the 33 acres of natural woodland, severe weather can be very dangerous. “Sometimes there really is no option but to close the park to visitors,” explains George. “High winds after weeks of relentless heavy rain dramatically increase the possibility of trees coming down. When it comes to public safety that’s a risk we simply cannot take.”

A close call at Tiger Rock
There was a particularly close call recently when heavy snow brought down a large branch from a pine tree overhanging the tiger enclosure, causing significant damage to the perimeter of the enclosure. “On the face of it, this was a typical nightmare scenario,” says George. “A large branch breaching the perimeter of a carnivore enclosure is at the top of the list of things you don’t want to happen around here. However, because this is a real possibility we have strict procedures in place. At the time the branch came down we’d already taken precautionary measures by ensuring all three tigers were safe and secure inside their house.”

Regular tree surveys help the staff at the zoo identify potential problems and intervene before they become an issue. But with thousands of branches on hundreds of trees in both public and non-public areas it’s an almost impossible task. Recently a large branch from a beach tree came down in high winds close to the coati enclosure. It caused no serious damage but it took all available staff to remove over one ton of wood from the pathway.

“When you think of what might have happened in events like this, it’s more than a little scary,” explains George. “However, it happened after hours. If it had happened during opening hours our procedures would have already ensured that the park would have been closed to visitors.”

The expense of repairing damage and the cost of necessary closures has been keenly felt by everyone at the zoo, so the positive turn in the weather has been very welcome.

“We’ve decided that summer is already upon us and moved to summer opening hours six weeks early,” says George. “I admit that declaring the start of summer is mostly blind optimism, but with a winter like the one we’ve just had we could all use a little optimism; blind or otherwise.”

However, the radical change in schedule is not entirely whimsical. There are real practicalities in play says George, “The weather forecast for Half Term is quite favourable, the days are longer and visitor numbers are fairly good. Most importantly we need to make the best of the good weather to compensate for the unavoidable cost of the bad.”

In addition to extending the opening hours to 6pm daily the zoo is hoping to attract visitors with a number of special offers, the most recent of which is the, “BoomerangTicket” which entitles full paying visitors to a second visit free of charge. This and other offers can be found on the zoo’s web site and Facebook page.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

An Evening with...

A great evening had by all
On Friday the 8th February we hosted the first of our “Evening with...” events. They’re an opportunity for our visitors to hear all about the zoo’s activities from the senior staff whilst enjoying good food and great music.

This event was, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee” and focused on the recent history of the zoo looking at what projects we have underway and what to expect in 2013.

Head Keeper, Mike Downman (standing in for Curator, Colin Northcott currently recovering from a recent operation) got things underway with an entertaining rundown on all the animal comings and goings. He dealt admirably with the difficult task of covering the recent loss of two of our most iconic residents, Ben the European Brown Bear and more recently, Solomon the African Lion.

These major characters have played an important role in the life of the zoo and their loss is keenly felt by staff and visitors alike.

Mike also had plenty of good news such as the arrival of lots of baby Lechwe Antelope, African Pygmy Goats and more recently, meerkats as well as the touching story of bay tapir, Luta. He also brought everyone up-to-date with recent important additions to the collection including the introduction of Iberian Wolves and Grants Zebra.

Entertainment for the evening was provided by Frankie Canale-Dow, a local singer who is gathering notoriety whilst she volunteers and studies for her Extended Diploma in Animal Management here at DZP with Bicton College. She was accompanied by Gary Platts on guitar with whom she’d been working diligently over the previous weeks to learn and rehearse many new songs. They both put on a great performance roundly appreciated by the audience.

Between the main course and dessert, Conservation and Research Officer, Adam Cook gave a presentation illustrating the import contribution we make in these fields. With the help of a volunteer from the audience he was able to bring more than a little humour to what might otherwise be considered a rather dry subject. Conservation and research activities are crucial activities in the day-to-day life of a modern zoo which often go unnoticed by the visitor so we were thrilled to see just how the enthusiastic reception from the audience highlighted the value of this kind of event.

Benjamin signing copies of We Bought a Zoo
After dessert it was time for Zoo Director, Benjamin Mee to give his presentation. He took the opportunity to take the audience back to the earliest days of the Dartmoor Zoo story from the very real struggle it was to actually buy the zoo, through the drama of the jaguar escape, meeting Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson, right up to the most recent events and future plans.

In a lively Q&A, members of the audience had the chance to quiz Ben on his talk and highlight areas of personal interest.

To close proceedings Ben kindly signed copies of, “We Bought a Zoo” and posed for photographs with the guests.

All in all, the event was a resounding success with many of the guests keen to know when the next event would be.

On 12th April we’ll be hosting, “The History of Man’s Fascination with Animal Captivity.”

UP-DATE: You can find full up-to-date details on the event here.

Presentation Team Supervisor, Emma Baker will be giving a fascinating talk illustrating the history of animal captivity from the earliest Egyptian menageries designed to enhance the status of the pharaohs through the golden age of imperial collections to the modern day zoological collection and its focus on conservation, education and research. It’s a unique opportunity to see how and why attitudes have changed over the years whilst the fascination remains the same.

Curator, Colin Northcott will then draw on his 25 years of personal experience to give a modern history of life as a zoo keeper including some truly hair-raising stories of all-too-close-encounters with large captive carnivores.

Once again, places are limited so for further information and booking, contact Naomi today.

If all that is still not enough to tempt you to join us, here are some very kind comments from the audience for, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee.”
“A big thank you to Benjamin and the rest of the staff for an absolutely fantastic evening on Friday night! The atmosphere was fantastic and I loved every second of it.” - Dawn Loxham
“Just wanted to thank everyone at Dartmoor Zoo for a lovely night last night. We got our books signed and really enjoyed the presentations from all the speakers. Meeting Benjamin was an absolute delight. He's a real inspiration and a very genuine person with amazing qualities and a fighting spirit. Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to be a part of the evening, we hope to come back and visit you all again soon.” - Emma Matthews
“What a great evening last night. So interesting and good food. Glad to see it was so well supported. To top it off, as we got into our car outside the main house, a real rumble from one of the big cats. Thanks guys.” - Amanda Mabley
“Great Evening. Thanks all, lovely to meet you, especially Ben .” - Godoartist
“Great evening at the zoo this evening. Thanks for organising...let's do it again sometime!” - Lindsay Brown
“Had a great evening @DartmoorZoo last night with #BenjaminMee. He gives me great strength and hope and is a true inspiration to me. “ - @EmmasPlanet
“Last night was brilliant! Thank you for such an enjoyable evening.” - @APieceofCake7
“Just home from a great inspirational evening @DartmoorZoo. Interesting talks from the keepers, good food and a chat with the man himself!“ - @onlyloupigs
“Please thank everyone for a great evening. We learnt a lot about behind the public scenes. Must look up some of the animals mentioned.” - @pakafe
“Adam Cook @DartmoorZoo has helped me realise just how important the behind the scenes work this zoo does is to other zoos and the animals.” - @TraumaCleaning
“I had such an amazing time meeting Benjamin Mee last night, from Dartmoor Zoo. He's truly inspirational.“ - @APieceofCake7
“Great night at Dartmoor Zoo's ‘An Evening with Benjamin Mee’ Thank you all at DZP.” - @mazhome
Contact Naomi today for information and booking.

Behind the scenes with the big cats

Behind the scenes with our Amur Tigers
One of the experiences we offer here at Dartmoor Zoo is being a Big Cat Keeper for the day, providing people with a chance to work alongside the keepers in the daily routine for the big cats. It’s an all-day, hands-on experience getting as close to the big cats as is possible to get without being eaten!

The day starts at 8am in the Jaguar Restaurant where participants meet the keepers they’ll be spending the day with. It’s a chance to have a cuppa and go through all the important health and safety briefing that is necessary for getting behind the scenes with the big carnivores.

Then it’s off to the keeper’s yard to prepare food for the morning feed. Most of the cats are fed every other day to approximate their natural feeding habits in the wild where not every hunt would be successful making daily feeding rare. In the wild, once a kill has been made they would eat until they are fit to burst then rest for two to three days conserving energy for the next hunt. Lions are known for sleeping around 20 out of 24 hours!

The morning round can take around two hours making sure all the animals are in their enclosures, they are healthy and showing normal behaviour. At each enclosure the keepers give the participants all the background information on the animals from a keeper’s point of view. They learn all about the individual animal’s personality and to how they would live in the wild.

One thing to bear in mind when doing an experience like this is that it’s quite common to come into contact with poo, which can be a bit stinky! Also, dealing with large carnivores means dealing with large amounts of raw meat and, when the feeding is done, lots of bones.

The highlight of the day is assisting with the big cat talk for members of the public to watch in the afternoon. Participants help the keepers put out the cats’ meat, clean their enclosure, (that’s where the poo and bones comes into it) then stand back and enjoy the public talk by the Presentation Team.

At the end of a long, often tiring day, you get to take home a certificate to say you did a Big Cat Experience at Dartmoor Zoo, as well as lots of photos and memories of getting up close and personal with our amazing cats. Oh, and don’t forget the lovely keepers!

This is one of our most popular experiences and it never fails to impress. You can find out more about our Big Cat Keeper for a Day experience and see what visitors have to say about it here.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper

New zebra settling in nicely

George with Milo, Ella and Benjamin Mee
On December 5th 2012 we received our new Zebras from Longleat Safari Park, and they were immediately placed in their new, purpose built stable. They took to their new home very quickly, and have rapidly become a firm favourite of the Keepers.

They were named by a special DZP visitor, George Koshti-Richman as Zebedee, Zak & Spot. They are all easily identifiable, as each zebra’s stripes are unique to that animal, a bit like our fingerprints. Zebedee can be identified by the thick black stripe down the centre of his back, Zak has thick black stripes under both eyes, and Spot has a small white “heart” shape on the top of his back right leg and a black “Y” on his upper right foreleg.

Their unique markings make it easy for us to identify individuals, but there is one intriguing questions regarding the zebra’s stripes; are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes? The answer is to be found at the end of this article.

You may be surprised to see three males together, but in zebra society this is perfectly normal. Young males leave their family herd at between one and four years old and join all male bachelor herds until they are able to lead a herd of their own. Inter zoo co-operation allows these natural set-ups to happen by sending males to other collections who have the space to hold bachelor herds. Here at DZP they can form a bachelor herd where they can exhibit natural behaviours such as play fighting, learning new social skills, and generally behaving normally.

Zak, Zebedee and Spot enjoying their accommodation
Zebras can, and will become aggressive if they feel threatened, and they have some pretty formidable weapons with which to defend themselves. When confronted by any form of danger they will lash out with their powerful hind legs, or they will try to bite with their impressive teeth. Either can cause quite serious injuries and all the Keeper Team have been trained to manage the zebra with minimal risk to both parties.

We are planning to let them out into the African Paddock sometime in March, when, hopefully, the ground will have dried out. As they are designed for life in arid areas they can sometimes suffer hoof problems if the ground is too wet, and after our very rainy winter we want to make sure everything is perfect before giving them access to the fields. This has given us the opportunity to train the zebra, getting them to treat the stable block as a place of security, comfort and food. This will be important in the summer months when we may need to get them in for paddock maintenance or routine veterinary examinations and procedures.

Grants Zebras are the smallest of the Plains Zebra sub-species, being typically 120-140cms tall, and weighing on average 300Kgs. They can live up to 25 years in the wild, but in zoos and wildlife parks we can expect them to live for up to 40 years.

They are without doubt one of the most readily identifiable of all the African animals. No-one who has ever seen a Zebra can confuse it with anything else, which in a way is ironic. The very thing that makes the zebra most identifiable is the one thing that may help it when being attacked by lions, hyenas, hunting dogs or leopards. When they are in a large herd their stripes act as a disruptive camouflage, confusing predators because they cannot distinguish one individual from another.

Zebras are social animals, living in a herd system consisting of a stallion several mares and their young. Some herds may combine to form larger ones numbering several hundred, but family members will always remain close to each other.

Zebras are an iconic African species that inspire joy and excitement in all who see them, but there is still one unanswered question that perplexes staff and visitors alike. Are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes? The current opinion from scientists is that they are black with white stripes. What do you think?  Either way they are indeed striking animals, and we look forward to seeing them in all their glory for years to come.

Mike Downman
Head Keeper