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.

Saving snow leopards

Being a zoo keeper is not just about taking care of the animals within the footprint of the Zoo. Our animals may be our primary responsibility, but that responsibility stretches far beyond them. Animals in conservation care are not for entertainment or to be pets; they are here to educate visitors. Part of the protection and care we provide to animals at the Zoo extends to those in nature. There are also conservation organizations that will help these vulnerable animals. The Seneca Park Zoo, including its American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) chapter, has been fortunate enough to take part in helping some of these organizations, including Snow Leopard Trust, an organization that has done amazing work and is crucial to the survival of snow leopards.

The Zoo’s two snow leopards, Kaba and Princess, are such incredible animals with so much personality. They are a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) which pairs up genetically compatible animals in the hope of maintaining a healthy population in conservation care.  Although our snow leopards have not yet produced cubs, there is hope that one day they may. And while this is still taking care of animals that are at the zoo, the program is bigger than that. The SSP is about keeping the species going so they do not go extinct. Under the care and protection of the Zoo, these cats can safely reproduce and continue their lineage.

Kaba and Princess get cozy in the snow.

Kaba and Princess get cozy in the snow.

Kaba enjoys a tasty treat.

Kaba enjoys a tasty treat.



Another part of a species survival is taking care of the species in nature. Snow Leopard Trust is a conservation group that works to do whatever they can to help snow leopards, including helping the people that live in areas where snow leopards are indigenous. Snow Leopard Trust provides education, from basic snow leopard facts, all the way to curriculum for college-level courses. They help the communities of central Asia with job opportunities, and herders with discount vaccinations for livestock, and even livestock insurance. The livestock insurance is an incredible program where if a shepherd loses one of his herd to a snow leopard, they can file a claim and be reimbursed by Snow Leopard Trust. This program is intended to keep the snow leopard from being killed, benefiting both the shepherd and the snow leopard. Snow Leopard Trust also does extensive research to understand snow leopards and their environment.

Many of our keepers raise money to send to conservation organizations, and some of us send our own money. I have been fortunate enough to adopt a snow leopard cub in Mongolia. Snow Leopard Trust has sent me information, as well as stuffed animals, an ornament that was hand made in Mongolia by the women of rural herding communities, a picture of the snow leopard cub I adopted, magnets and more. The donations support all the work Snow Leopard Trust does throughout China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Pakistan.

Snow Leopard Trust adoption kit provided to Zoo Keeper Amanda Davis.

Adoption kit received by Zoo Keeper Amanda Davis.

Snow Leopard Trust has made a difference in the vitality of snow leopards, as well as the lives of the people of Central Asia. Snow leopards that are in conservation care may not seem to have much of an impression on the species in their natural range, but in fact they do. Our keeper staff has a much larger impact in the animal world than it might appear. Our job is not to just take care of the animals we work with every day at the Zoo. It is to help in whatever way we can so the entire species thrives, whether they’re in Rochester, NY or on the other side of the world. I am so fortunate to be able to work with these remarkable cats, and to be able to support the species in Central Asia.

Blog and photos by Amanda Davis, Zoo Keeper

Is that bird a male or female?

Photos by Kelli O'Brien

Photos by Kelli O’Brien

Determining the sex of a bird – penguins to eagles, snowy owls to great horned owls, king vultures to guinea fowls – is more difficult than one might suspect. Currently the Seneca Park Zoo has 21 male penguins and 13 female penguins. But we also have nine penguins of unknown sex. How do we know if they are male or female? The answer is science.

Snowy Owl 2013 Kelli O'Brien (2)

The best way to determine the sex of some birds is to look at the animal’s DNA. This is an extremely high-tech process that takes very specialized equipment to perform. Fortunately, the sample that is needed is fairly easy to obtain from our birds. All a scientist needs is a few feathers. Once we get the feathers, we mail the sample to the lab and a short time later we receive the news if we have a boy or a girl. That’s why we don’t know the sex of some of our young penguins; we like to wait until the birds grow up a little to get a sample from them.

For some birds it is quite obvious what sex they are just by looking at them. With chickens, the male (rooster) looks much different than the female (hen). In the wild many song bird males are more colorful then the females. Some of our Zoo birds we know are female because we’ve seen them lay eggs, which is always a sure giveaway!

Garrett Caulkins, LVT, Health Center Supervisor

Polar Bear 2011 A Lisa Schaller (Aurora & Zero)

Photo by Lisa Schaller

As zoo keepers, a question we are frequently asked is, “What’s your favorite part of your job?” As a keeper who works with the polar bears, another question I’m constantly asked is, “Where are the polar bears?”

Let me first tell you why I love my job. Just being able to spend time with exotic animals is reward enough for any of us. One of the most enjoyable things for us to do is to provide new and novel enrichment for the animals in our care. Enrichment is essential for the mental and physical wellbeing of all animals we care for. We try to find a variety of ways to entertain them and keep them busy, especially where they have to use all of their senses and body parts.

The response to “Where are the polar bears?” is a bit more involved. We strive to provide activities that will elicit the animals’ natural behaviors. In nature, polar bears hunt for seals under the ice through holes at the surface. Here at the Zoo, a favorite pastime of the polar bears is ice fishing. One of the off-exhibit areas contains a pool that tends to freeze over in the winter and the ice can get as thick as 4 1/2 inches. We make a few holes in the ice, about the size of an adult’s fist, where we can drop fish through to the bottom. As soon as we allow the bears access to that pool, they use their keen sense of smell to sniff out the fish. They head straight for the frozen pool, climb up on top of it, and peer into the holes where they can see the fish down below. That is all it takes to get them motivated and moving! They use their large paws and claws to dig at the ice surrounding those holes. The wide scratch marks they leave behind are telltale signs that bears have been there. The ice shavings they create by doing this remind me of the snow cones I used to eat as a child, which prompts me to flavor their snow as well, and I laugh when they lick it all away. Enrichment is fun for all of us.

The polar bears use their powerful jaws and long teeth to bite at the edges of the holes. This proves to be quite a mental and physical challenge for them and they keep at it. They use their massive shoulders and front legs to pounce on the ice trying to break through it. Our female, Aurora, will go and get her toys, carry them over to the pool, put them on the holes, and proceed to jump on them, trying to shove them into the holes to make them bigger. Our male, Zero, prefers to use his solid body and brute strength. Once they get the holes big enough to fit their front legs through, they reach inside, spear the fish with their claws, pull it out and devour the fruits of their labor.

The Zoo will be celebrating polar bears during Polar Bear Awareness Week and our polar bears, Aurora and Zero, will star in this week-long learning adventure.

– Heidi Beifus, Zoo Keeper


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