Seneca Park Zoo has been home to many animals for nearly 120 years, each one unique and special in its own way.  Keepers are often asked if they have a favorite, whether it’s an entire species or an individual animal, and for me the answer is always the same: there have been too many wonderful creatures of all kinds that I’ve had the privilege to spend time with for me to have a favorite. 

There is one species, however, that seems to bring out the best in me as a keeper and a person, and that’s the orangutans. One of them in particular, our matriarch Kumang, has done more to open my mind and heart than any other animal.

Kumang’s story starts long before her arrival here at Seneca Park Zoo back in 1991. She was born October 15th, 1977 at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, England. Her parents were Harold and Bobo, both caught in their natural range in 1959 (a common practice back then) at the approximate age of 4 years old. At the time of Kumang’s birth, Belle Vue was in the process of closing for good, and one month later all the zoo’s orangutans as well as a few other animals were sold to Weybridge, a private zoo in the suburbs of London.

Baby Kumang. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Baby Kumang, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Weybridge was owned by Gordon Mills, the manager of several popular singers including Tom Jones and Gilbert O’Sullivan. One of the keepers at Weybridge was Jeremy Keeling, who later co-founded a highly successful primate rescue center called Monkey World. Jeremy (who actually named Kumang) also wrote a book about another orangutan named Amy, and in it he touches on Kumang’s early years. 

Sadly, Kumang’s mom died when Kumang was only 18 months old and it was up to Jeremy to step in as surrogate mom. He writes about how at first, Kumang wanted nothing to do with him and resisted bottle feedings, even though she needed them to survive. Eventually he won her trust as he would take her to visit other orangutans during the day, and then she’d curl up beside him at night.  If it wasn’t for Jeremy’s compassion and determination, Kumang and her extended family would not be here today.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

What makes this episode in her life noteworthy is that despite losing her mom while still a baby and being partially hand-reared (an experience that tends to have a negative impact later in life) especially for primates, Kumang has always been an exceptional mother to all four of her offspring.

In 1984, Gordon decided to close his zoo and donated all of the orangutans in his collection to the San Diego Zoo. This stared a new chapter in Kumang’s life, the highlight of which was her proficiency at escaping the confines of her exhibit at least half a dozen times. Stories have circulated online about Kumang’s adventures as she and her friends completely foiled all attempts by the staff to contain them. You have to admire such determination and creativity!

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

In 1991, the Orangutan Species Survival Plan made a breeding recommendation for Kumang to be loaned to Seneca Park Zoo along with Jiggs, a wild-caught adult male with a successful breeding record from Hogle Zoo in Utah. Jiggs arrived here first, and Kumang one month later. Introductions went well and soon they were enjoying each other’s company. Kumang became pregnant shortly afterwards, and I remember how anxious the staff felt about whether or not she’d know what to do, being a first time mother. We didn’t know her history, if she’d ever seen or been around babies, or been mother-raised herself.

In 1992 their first baby was born, and any doubts about Kumang’s parenting skills were quickly erased. She was an absolute perfect mother in every way, and Jiggs as an already experienced father knew to keep a respectful distance while mother and son bonded. We named the young orangutan Bandar, after a village in his native Borneo. As Bandar got older and wanted to play or just get some attention, Jiggs was happy to oblige. It was very touching to watch Kumang care so lovingly for Bandar, and to watch the 300-plus-pound Jiggs play so gently with him.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Bandar now resides at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha and has been a good father to 4 offspring of his own.

Bandat in 2014, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Bandar in 2014, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Kumang went on to have another offspring with Jiggs, a female named Dara. In January 2001, Jiggs passed away at the approximate age of 35 years old. It was a sad day in Seneca Park Zoo history, as Jiggs was an exceptional animal and well-loved by those that knew him.

Later that year, the Species Survival Plan recommended that Lowell, from the San Diego Zoo, be sent here to be Kumang’s new mate. Together they had a son named Datu, who now resides at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. As of this writing, Datu has just become a first-time father to baby Keju, who is doing well at Henry Vilas Zoo.

Datu, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Datu, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Lowell passed away from a stroke in 2006. Kumang continued living with her daughter Dara, and in 2011, a young male named Denda from Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo came to live with them as another breeding recommendation for Kumang. Dara was sent to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk a short time later to hopefully start her own family. Her new home is a spacious habitat with lots of grass, a waterfall and four-story climbing structure. We’re all very happy for her.

Dara at Norfolk Zoo, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Dara at Norfolk Zoo, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Meanwhile, Denda has been a good partner for Kumang, as he engages her in play on a regular basis (whether she wants to or not). Thanks to him, Kumang’s activity level has gone up, and that’s a good thing. Together Kumang and Denda have a daughter named Bella, born on April 29th of 2013. As usual, Kumang has been a perfect mother to Bella, and Denda has shown great gentleness when he plays with his daughter.

Looking forward, Seneca Park Zoo is about to undergo some exciting changes in the not-so-distant future. A new and spacious habitat for our orangutans is expected to be a part of those changes. The staff is thrilled about the prospect of new quarters for our orange friends and look forward to seeing them happy together for years to come.

Kumang and Bella

Kumang and Bella, photo by Kellee Wolowitz

Seneca Park Zoo would like to offer special thanks to Mr. Jeremy Keeling for saving Kumang, and for providing photos and insight into her early life. Until this year, we never knew anything about Kumang’s life in England, and from what we’ve learned, we all feel much closer to her now. I will be forever grateful to him for providing us with that information.

Jeremy’s lifelong passion and dedication to saving unwanted and abused primates through Monkey World is an inspiration, to say the least. 

I highly recommend Jeremy’s book Jeremy and Amy. It’s an incredible story, made even more so because a small part of it is our very own Kumang’s story.

Jeremy and Amy

Join us for Ornagutan M.O.M. Weekend this Mother’s Day weekend and learn about the Missing Orangutan Mothers (M.O.M.) Campaign, which is bringing attention to the crises facing these beautiful animals by encouraging people to help protect them. Join Zoo staff and volunteers as we honor and celebrate our own orangutans, Kumang, Denda and Bella, and wear #OrangeforOrangs to show your support for conservation.



— Brian Sheets, Zoo Keeper

As one might imagine, a lot of preparation is needed to receive a nine-ton delivery or two. So when Seneca Park Zoo confirmed that Moki and Chana, two 9,000 pound African elephants, would be arriving in mid-April to join Genny C and Lilac, there was a great deal of planning to be done by the staff.

Photo by Susan Henkin

Photo by Susan Henkin

The Zoo has a large, modern facility capable of holding up to five elephants, but some of the holding areas still needed to be modified.  Moki and Chana will be managed in restricted contact, so special barriers were put in place to facilitate this management style.

Closed-circuit cameras have been installed so that staff can record Moki and Chana’s behavior and interactions with Genny C and Lilac around the clock. The behavior of all four female elephants will be closely studied by staff to determine how best to physically introduce them to each other.

The food supply for elephants will be doubled. That means deliveries of 1,200 pounds of grain, 1,200 pounds of fresh produce and 360 bales of hay each month.

Photo by Amelia Bifano

Photo by Amelia Bifano

The most exciting part of the preparation was to actually visit with Moki and Chana at their then-current home, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida. In March, Elephant Manager Lindsay Brinda and I each had the opportunity to spend a few days in Jacksonville to get to know the elephants and learn how the staff there cares for them. Jacksonville Zoo welcomed us and allowed us to work closely with them as they shared training techniques, husbandry methods and personality profiles of the elephants.

Moki and Chana have been at Jacksonville Zoo for nine years, and their keepers are understandably deeply attached to them. One of the most difficult aspects of being a zoo keeper is sometimes having to say goodbye to animals that you have dedicated yourself to caring for, protecting, loving and sometimes fighting for. The Jacksonville staff are true professionals, though, and shared every bit of knowledge they had to ensure that Moki and Chana could have the same high level of care when they arrived at Seneca Park Zoo.

On your next visit to the Zoo, be sure to see our newest and biggest additions, and think about what it took to get them here. Believe me, it was all worth it!

– Mary Ellen Sheets, Elephant Handler

I am often asked this question by visitors while the elephants are enjoying a delicious truckload of browse that the keepers have collected for them. Browse is defined as “shoots, twigs, and leaves of trees and shrubs used by animals for food.”13

Seneca Park Zoo implements a browse program as part of the elephant management program. This is a requirement for accreditation by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The elephant staff works very hard to provide Genny C and Lilac with a variety of browse as often as possible.

12The goal is to encourage species-appropriate appetite behaviors, as well as to promote dental health. Since elephant teeth migrate forward (not vertically), it is important that the right type of food is offered to promote dental health and allow for the natural progression of each molar.

The elephant staff offers types of browse that have been approved by our veterinarian as safe for the elephants to eat. Staff is trained to be able to identify various species of trees that are native to Western New York. Seneca Park Zoo has relationships with several local towns and tree companies who are happy to help provide the elephants with browse.

14So the answer to the question “Do the elephants really eat trees?” is YES! Their favorites are sugar maple, Norway maple, silver maple and willow. They eat the leaves and small branches completely, chew the bark off of the medium size branches, and use their tusks to scrape the bark off of the large logs.


Blog by Sue Rea, Zoologist; Photos by Sue Rea and Jenna Bovee, Elephant Handler

20150314_125112I have been meaning to visit the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro California since 2011, when our Zoo’s two female California sea lions arrived here at Seneca Park Zoo.

The staff at the care center saved Marina and Lily’s lives after they were both injured by bullets, and I have wanted to thank them for a long time.

Lily and Marina have adjusted wonderfully to Zoo life with the help of dedicated  staff and positive reinforcement training. I wanted the marine mammal care center to know the latest on our sea lions’ successes, since they were part of it from the beginning.


When I saw on the news that there has been hundreds of sea lion pups washing up on shore, starving and ill, and that the center needed donations and volunteers, I knew this was the time to go. So I packed my bags and went to help out. The center was so clean and well-run, I felt hope and not sadness. If animals were to be saved, it was here and I was proud to be part of this team, even for a short time.


Over $1,250 was donated by the American Association of Zoo Keepers (our wonderful  zookeeper chapter) and from the sales of the book Puff the Sea lion: A Love Story.

Please donate your time and money  if you can. It does make a difference.


-Blog and photos by Mary Ellen Ostrander, Zoo Keeper

Over two decades ago I stood outside the penguin exhibit at the Baltimore Zoo, (now the Maryland Zoo) and watched as two keepers entered the habitat, fish in hand, followed by 40+ African penguins. I turned to my husband (who was my boyfriend at the time), and said, “That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Despite the degree in communications that I was just about to graduate with, he looked at me and without hesitation said, “How do we make that happen for you?”

And so began my quest to land my dream job, working with penguins somewhere, anywhere. But how?

Like many young people interested in working with animals, I realized that the best way to gain experience was through volunteering. Living on Cape Cod at the time, I had my sights set on New England Aquarium. I walked in and declared I was ready to do anything to get some hands-on experience with their penguins, to which they quickly responded, “We don’t have any openings in the Penguin Department. Please fill out an application and we’ll be in touch.”

Several weeks later I got the call. There was an opening in Rescue and Rehabilitation. Could I come in for an interview?


Photo by Amanda Adams LeClair


Over the next several months I began a journey that would change my life. I discovered that my love of animals was not limited to penguins. Harbor seal pups, green sea turtles, and a little Kemp’s ridley sea turtle would all find their way into my heart. To gain more experience, I started volunteering at Franklin Park Zoo (Zoo New England), and found that gorillas, pygmy hippos, pottos and tapirs were all equally as fascinating! In the two years total that I volunteered before finally getting hired as a zoo keeper at Franklin Park, I discovered that my home and my heart was in a zoo.

For 17 years now I have been at Seneca Park Zoo. Volunteering allowed me to gain the knowledge and experience needed to pursue a career that I’m grateful for every day of my life. I have had the opportunity to not only oversee our colony of African Black-footed penguins, but also to stand on that very exhibit in Baltimore that inspired my dream over 20 years ago.


– Kara Masaschi, Assistant Curator

On February 1, the South American exhibit welcomed a new baby agouti.

Here are some interesting facts about these little rodents:

Agouti babies can run and eat solids shortly after birth. Our baby was observed eating an apple on Day 1. It tends to hide under the leaves or under the straw in the exhibit, but it also runs around the entire exhibit with mom.


Photo by Marie Kraus

Agouti are active during the day but can become nocturnal if predation is high. They have excellent eyesight and hearing.

DSCN6338They can produce as many as two litters per year when food is readily available. Their favorite foods are fruits, seeds and nuts, and they are one of two animals who can break open the tough outer shell of the Brazil Nut. They will cache food to eat later and can remember where food is hidden. Some nuts may be overlooked, though, so agouti are also helping with dispersal for propagation.

DSCN6193Commonly hunted by ocelot, jaguar, snake and humans, agouti are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as a species of least concern in the forests of Central and South America because of their wide distribution, presumed large population, occurrence in a number of protected areas, and tolerance to some degree of habitat modification.


Blog and photos by Tina Fess, Zoologist


As the temperature outside slowly starts to creep up, the Seneca Park Zoo staff is gearing up for another season of working out in the field. The Zoo has partnerships with several different regional organizations that allow us to join them on different field projects and lend a hand wherever we can.

This March, the vet staff will be accompanying the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as they trek through the Southern Tier seeking out black bear dens. These dens, hopefully, contain sows that have recently given birth to their cubs. DEC officials will anesthetize the sows to conduct physical examinations on both her and the cubs she may have. The information gathered will be used to help formulate the bear management plan for the coming year.

chitt snail

The Zoo assists with Chittenango ovate amber snail conservation.

As spring begins to turn towards summer, crews of Seneca Park Zoo staff will venture out to Chittenango Falls State Park to begin another season of Chittenango ovate amber snail population surveys. The ovate amber snail is federally endangered and can only be found in the area around Chittenango Falls. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, along with graduate students from SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry, guide the surveys that are used to assess the status of the snails in the wild. Zoo staff will help to collect and count the snails at the falls.

Summer means sturgeon. Officials from the United States Geological Survey will lead survey teams up the Genesee River to collect data on the river’s sturgeon population. Lake sturgeon have been reintroduced into the Genesee River through multiple restocking events and are thriving. As these fish grow, they will move out into the lake until they reach maturity. They will then move back into the river to spawn. Right now, the sturgeon are still growing. Gill netting is used to access the fish. Several different measurements are taken and used to track the population’s health.

Hatchling - sturgeon

A sturgeon hatchling before release into the Genesee River.

Once again, this year will prove to be an exciting year for local conservation projects and the Zoo’s staff.

Blog and photos by Robin English, L.V.T.


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