Recently, we were hit with our first winter storm of the season. Here at Seneca Park Zoo, keepers are prepared for how such weather events may impact their animals. An assessment of supplies, such as working heaters, high-low thermometers and extra bedding, has been taken into account. Individual animals with special needs due to age or illness have also been considered and a plan is in place. Seasonal dietary needs have been addressed. Rest assured…the animals here at SPZ are comfy and cozy!

For some species, such as our polar bears and Amur tigers, the long, cold, Rochester winters are just right. If you visit this time of year, you may even notice an increased level of activity in Katya, one of our Amur tigers, or Gretzky, one of our Canada lynx. But for many of our animals, the dropping temperatures and accumulation of snow are not what they would experience in their home ranges. For those animals, great care is taken to be sure they are comfortable as well.

All of our animals have access to dens and off-exhibit holding areas, where they can escape the elements, and supplemental heating and bedding can be provided. Many of these areas have skylights so animals are still in bright spaces despite being inside. We believe giving our animals choices to be inside or outside is very important. You may be surprised at how much our lions enjoy playing in the snow! For smaller animals though, paths are shoveled in exhibits to help them navigate through the snow that builds up this time of year.

One animal you may not see out this time of year are the penguins. Our penguins are from South Africa, where the average temperature ranges between the mid-30s to high 80s. In cold weather, these penguins are at risk of getting frostbite on the tips of their wings and toes. This time of year is their peak breeding season, so they are quite content to be inside, in the safety of their nest boxes.

The Zoo is open year-round with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days, so plan a trip soon and see what kind of changes happen when the snow begins to fly!

- Kara Masaschi, Assistant Curator

Seneca Park Zoo’s Robin English, LVT and Director of Animal Health and Conservation Dr. Jeff Wyatt recently instructed twenty-one of Medaille College’s Rochester Campus Veterinary Technology students for a special class at Seneca Park Zoo.

Veterinary technicians assist veterinarians in all fields of veterinary medicine, from dog and cat hospitals to zoos. Becoming a veterinary technician requires two to four years of college training (Associate’s to Bachelor’s degree) in contrast to eight years for veterinarians. In addition, students must also pass national and New York State licensing examinations. Medaille College offers the only veterinary technician training program in Rochester.

In the class at the Zoo, students participated in examinations of a short-tailed opossum, armadillo, hedgehog, cockatoo, boa constrictor, bearded dragon, spotted turtle, chinchilla and rooster as well as practiced their darting skills with a blow pipe. The Zoo proudly provides diverse educational opportunities for students across many disciplines, expanding its impact of using science to save species.

 – Jeff Wyatt, Director of Animal Health and Conservation

Where are the bears?

Photo by Joe Melton

Zero. Photo by Joe Melton

Wintertime for Zoo staff at the Seneca Park Zoo means getting the grounds and animal exhibits ready for the long, cold months ahead. Many different animals enjoy the change of seasons. Visitors coming to the Zoo this time of year may be hoping to catch a glimpse of two Zoo residents built for the winter: our polar bears, Aurora and Zero. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done at times. So, where are the bears?

As part of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP), our bears are considered valuable in terms of producing genetically-sound offspring. This is done to ensure a strong population in conservation care in the event of a catastrophe in the population in nature.

Photo by Marie Kraus

Aurora. Photo by Marie Kraus

Since 1990 Aurora has given birth to five cubs, and with every success and failure, the staff has refined its techniques to make this experience as positive and stress-free as possible for her, which brings us to today. The bears’ off-exhibit area is equipped with a cubbing den, meant to mimic a quiet, dark, warm and safe place where a female would give birth and nurse her cubs for a few months. Ours is unique, however, as we have a system of cameras set up to catch any denning activity, as well as a way to observe her maternal care should she have cubs (she’s a great mom).

So, where do male polar bears fit in to all of this? For the most part, they don’t. They provide no care to their young and can actually be a threat to the young as well as to mother bears. From about mid-October until roughly January, our bears are kept separate. When one bear has access to the exhibit, the other is kept inside in a large area with a pool, different substrates, enrichment opportunities and, of course, quality time spent with our keeper staff. There is one area that the male doesn’t see for weeks or months at a time however: the female’s cubbing den. Even picking up his scent in this area could cause stress and complicate a potential pregnancy.

As our bears take turns being on exhibit, Zero is almost always visible when outdoors. Aurora however, would much rather be indoors, interacting with staff or napping in her denning area. Seeing her this time of year can require lots of patience and a little luck, but the hope is that all of this could result in another season of watching mom and babies enjoying the climate they were truly made for.

Please note: At this time, it does not appear that Aurora is pregnant. However, in the interest of her welfare, the Zoo will continue to keep the bears separated until cubbing season has concluded. Females do not show (newborns are very small, weighing about two pounds) and a female bear’s behavior during this time is not always indicative of what her reproductive status may be.

- Ryan Statt, zoologist


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.