Cisco: A heritage fish restored

Cisco, a fish species new to Seneca Park Zoo, are on display with hatchery-reared lake sturgeon as part of a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) project led by the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Tunison Laboratory of Aquatic Science in Cortland, NY, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).

The USGS, DEC and Zoo staff celebrated the reintroduction of 145,000 cisco, also known as lake herring. Two releases took place in September and November at the Newport Yacht Club, at the foot of Irondequoit Bay.

Cisco, a name derived from Chippewa (Ojibwe) Native American and Canadian languages meaning “fish with oily skin,” were decimated by more competitive invasive fish species of the Great Lakes such as alewife and rainbow smelt. With the invasive species now in check, the timing is perfect to restore native prey species of fish back to Irondequoit Bay and Lake Ontario to add a natural balance to the food web.

Visit the Zoo’s ECO Center to see two native fish species, cisco and lake sturgeon, which were saved by science and are making a tremendous comeback in Greater Rochester’s waterways.

– Jeff Wyatt, Director of Animal Health and Conservation

Behind the scenes with Tiberius

Take a behind-the-scenes peek at the first wellness exam for Tiberius, our 20-month-old, 270-pound African male lion.

After a friendly, hand-delivered injection of anesthetic on exhibit, Seneca Park Zoo staff drove an anesthetized Tiberius in the back of a truck to the Zoo’s Animal Hospital. Zoo veterinary staff were joined by Dr. Karl Schwarz, Professor and Director of the University of Rochester Echocardiography Laboratory, to perform a routine physical examination, which included a head-to-toe assessment, blood sampling and a baseline echocardiogram.

Tiberius received a clean bill of health. We can now feel confident in sending him to his new home to start his family. Combining experts in human and veterinary medicine helped Tiberius benefit from the best of both specialties, demonstrating the interconnectedness of human and animal health.

- Dr. Jeff Wyatt, Director of Animal Health and Conservation

Photo by Kelli O'Brien

Photo by Kelli O’Brien

For hundreds of years, humans have managed elephants, either for display purposes or as working animals. Traditional training methods used are referred to as free contact, in which keepers and elephants share the same unrestricted space. Around 1990, some trainers began to test the training methods commonly used with marine mammals on elephants, from outside the elephants’ spaces. They were successful and coined the term protected contact, to distinguish that the keeper was protected from the elephant by some sort of physical barrier.

This method of training is also referred to as target training, or restricted contact. Seneca Park Zoo’s African elephants, Genny C and Lilac, have been managed in free contact since their arrival in 1979. I started working with them in 1985 and stayed until 1997, when I took an elephant keeper position at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There, I learned protected contact training methods and cared for 17 African elephants over 11 years. Since my return to SPZ in 2012, I have helped to implement these methods with Genny C and Lilac. By adding these new training methods to our overall management system, we will have the most flexibility in providing the best care for our elephants now and into the future.

Adapting to a different way of working after so many years took time and patience, but we have all enjoyed seeing each elephant discover a new way of interacting with their keepers. The fact that we have gradually implemented these new methods has made it a stress-free and positive experience for the elephants, as well as for staff.

While the majority of our interaction with the elephants continues to be in free contact, our staff can now successfully carry out many daily husbandry routines using only protected contact. During some of the sessions, visitors may see the elephants participating in baths, foot care and exercise. If you get the chance to see one of these sessions, or if you have any questions about the elephants’ training and care, feel free to ask one of us after the session is over. We always like to share information about these wonderful animals!

- Mary Ellen Sheets, elephant handler

Photo by Terri Redhead

Photo by Terri Redhead

While it can be done, it’s a complicated and slow process that requires a lot of patience. Here at the Zoo we have three extremely handsome Mexican gray wolves: Diego, Durango and Chico. Technically, the wolves belong to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, as Mexican gray wolves are critically endangered and need to be strictly managed. For more information about this program, click here.

Due to their status, our wolves are always potentially releasable animals, in order to father future generations. We want them to retain their apprehension of humans as to keep them safe if they are released into their natural ranges.

When it comes to caring for the wolves, we use a free contact management system. This means that two keepers go into the exhibit with the wolves at a time. One keeps an eye on the wolves, typically carrying a shovel or rake to appear bigger and more intimidating, while the other cleans the exhibit. Over time though, the wolves (Durango in particular) have become used to the keepers’ presence. This could be problematic, given the intent is to keep them wary of human interaction.

Once we realized that they started to lose their hesitation, we needed to find a solution. Our first thought was to move the wolves into a separate, off-exhibit area. However, moving the wolves is easier said than done. For our other animals, we use positive reinforcement training techniques, which involve using food as rewards, and building trust. However, for the wolves this would involve too much interaction, which could further decrease their flight distance from people. We decided to implement a habituation technique. This technique does involve food rewards. However, the food is placed in the desired switch area, instead of the keeper giving the food directly. The end goal is to move all three wolves into the switch area and close the door for an extended period of time. This allows the keeper to service the exhibit without the wolves being in the yard. In this way, all are safe and the wolves are as wild as possible, in case they are called upon to supplement the wild population.

- Abigail Carr, zoo keeper

Most Zoo visitors only have a brief glimpse into the world of a zoo keeper and only see what we’re working on at that moment, which is usually cleaning. What they don’t see are the other details involved in animal care, such as diet preparation. Some diets, like the orangutans, are complex and measured out by the calorie. In order to mimic the orangutans eating habits in the wild, their diet is fed out in small increments throughout the day. Pictured below is one full day of diets for my section including seasonal browse (willow, grapevine, maple, etc.).

Photo by Brian Sheets

Photo by Brian Sheets

A typical day:

8:15 to 9 a.m.: Arrive at work, collect radio and other gear, review reports and daily logs. Team meeting to discuss the day’s activities and goals. Check on animals, begin diets, dispense medications, first orangutan feeding.

9 to 10:30 a.m.: Clean Meerkat Exhibit, feed diet and provide enrichment (activities that stimulate our animals’ bodies and minds). Second orangutan feeding, clean exhibit, provide enrichment.

10:15 to 10:30 a.m.: Break, and much needed coffee!

10:30 to 10:45 a.m.: Prepare morning produce diet for orangutans, tortoise diet, and third orangutan feeding.

10:45 to Noon: Clean gibbon and spider monkey exhibits, provide enrichment, feed tortoise.

Noon to 12:30 p.m.: Fourth orangutan feeding, clean another inside room of Orangutan Exhibit.

12:30 to 1 p.m.: Lunch

1 to 2:30 p.m.: Prepare afternoon diets for orangutans, spider monkeys and gibbons, and provide enrichment.

2:45 to 4:30 p.m.: Fifth orangutan feeding, finish any remaining cleaning. Start paperwork and fill out daily logs. Feed meerkats’ afternoon diet and provide enrichment. Start sixth orangutan feeding.

4:30 to 5 p.m.: Final orangutan, gibbon and spider monkey feeding. Check all animals and make sure all locks and doors are secured, heaters are on (if needed), areas cleaned, cleaning supplies restocked, tools put away, etc. When all Zoo areas have checked in with the supervisor of the day, radios and gear are put away and we head home.

This is an average day but does not include animal training, observation, produce, meat and fish deliveries, staff meetings, scheduled animal presentations, speaking with visitors, animal and visitor emergencies, exhibit repairs and improvements, grounds keeping and other typical duties for the keepers.

If it seems like a lot, trust me, it is. But this is not work to us. It’s a privilege, and we’re very fortunate to be in a position to care for these animals. That’s what keeps us going.

- Brian Sheets, zoo keeper


More about our penguin colony

Photo by Crystal Bratcher

Photo by Crystal Bratcher

Here at the Zoo we currently have a colony of 36 African penguins: 28 adults, seven juveniles, and one chick. With so many birds running around, two of the most common questions I get as a penguin keeper are: “How do you tell all of them apart?” and “How do you keep track of all those penguins?”

Well, for me, telling them apart is easy. Each penguin has a band with colored beads on either their left or right wing. Each mated pair of penguins and their chicks have the same color or combination of colors, with males banded on the left, and females on the right.

When it comes to keeping track of them, it’s more than just being able to tell them apart. It’s about knowing each individual penguin enough to tell if they’re acting in an irregular way. For example, a typically good eater not eating as much as they normally do, or a social butterfly that seems to be separating themselves from the rest of the colony, indicates that something could be wrong. Then again, they could simply be getting ready to lay an egg.

Animals are not good at letting you know if they aren’t feeling well. So, we need other methods besides behavioral observations to keep track of their health. One way we can tell if something might be wrong is by keeping track of weights. At the beginning of every month, we weigh the entire colony. All of the penguins are used to being weighed, so it’s a fairly easy process. Check out the video below to watch the routine.

Don’t forget to visit the Zoo on Monday, October 13th for Penguin Awareness Day! There will be keeper talks, penguin feeding demonstrations, and we have some great silent auction items to bid on that day, too. Hope to see everyone there.

- Heather Paye, zoo keeper

Where are the lynx?

Photo by Tina Fess

Photo by Tina Fess

There are so many times that we are asked, “Where are the Canada lynx?”

Our Canada lynx can typically be found up on the deck, or on the ground along the back fence line. The colors of the lynx help them to blend in very well with their environment. The colors help so well in fact, that they can be right out there in front and even we have to look really hard just to catch a glimpse of them. While it might not be the best viewing opportunities for us, their natural ability to camouflage themselves serves an extremely valuable purpose in their natural ranges. It not only helps keep approaching predators from seeing them, but also their prey doesn’t see them coming.

We have a two-year-old male, Gretzky, who arrived in 2013 as well as a one-year-old female, Bianca, who arrived this fall. While they both came from zoos in Canada, they had never met until now.

Gretzky and Bianca are currently being introduced to one another. This is a slow process and usually takes anywhere from three to six weeks. In their indoor area, they first had what we refer to as nose-to-nose contact. This means there is mesh between them so that they can see, hear, smell, touch, and safely get comfortable with each other. They have been taking turns out on the exhibit duringthis period, so as to give Bianca time to adjust to her new surroundings, and allow her time to learn the exhibit.

Photo by Kelli O'Brien

Photo by Kelli O’Brien

They have been introduced to one another inside the exhibit since then, which you can see in the photo to the right.

If all goes well, maybe I will be writing about lynx kittens in the next year or two.

Check out the video of Bianca on her first day out in the yard below.

- Heidi Beifus, zoo keeper


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