I ❤️ Volunteers—Let Me Count the Ways

Some people love doing something for nothing. When that something is done with

  • Heart, from a place of selflessness and love, not for compensation,
  • Passion, with a focused purpose and intensity, even when challenged, and
  • Enthusiasm, with an attitude filled with energy and unconditional commitment

it’s called Volunteering!

But why would you do something for nothing? I’m glad you asked!

Decades of research have shown that the act of volunteering has wonderful mental and physical health benefits, including an increased sense of self-confidence, a reduction of stress and less potential for depression, and great opportunities for exercise and even travel. Michael Lindenmayer, a well-known entrepreneur, writer, and systems designer, identified the traits of the best volunteers, and there are 3 from his list that I find most relevant to my own experience with volunteering:

  • Volunteers want their causes to generate major positive impact
  • Volunteers are energizers: You feel amped up when you’re with them, friendships form, you feel like family
  • Volunteers think less about what they can get and more about what they can contribute

Now a quick question: Can you name a volunteer organization that most people the world over would know by name? 

Most people wouldn’t hesitate to name the big ones: the global Red Cross/Red Crescent network, the Peace Corps, or any of the dozens and dozens of Without Borders groups, including Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Teachers, and even Musicians. What’s important to know is this: These organizations exist because of volunteerism.

If your lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to travel with a particular Without Borders group, consider this: Right here in the beautiful city of Tucson, there are many 501(c)3 non-profit organizations who work with animals that are in great need of volunteers. In fact, because they are non-profits and operate on very lean budgets, they could not fulfill their missions without volunteers. Those most close to my heart include the Tucson Wildlife Center, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and, my personal favorite, the Reid Park Zoological Society, the 501(c)3 organization which supports the city-owned Reid Park Zoo.

At last count, Reid Park Zoo had more than 300 volunteers ranging in age from 13 to 94! You’d be right in assuming the largest group includes the adult Docents, the friendly people wearing red shirts who roam the zoo, talking with guests, and freely sharing their knowledge about the animals they love and the conservation messages they represent. But there are more! Community Engagement Volunteers who work in teams—parents and their tweens or other-abled adults and their supportive aides—are also out and about just waiting to talk with you. 

On weekends and at special events, you’ll see members of our famous Zoo Crew, teen volunteers wearing turquoise or purple shirts, sharing their knowledge about the animals or their latest conservation project and fundraising with their hand-made Go Green Kits. Just how enthusiastic are they? The Zoo Crew was honored with the Youth Volunteer of the Year Award in 2020 sponsored by the Southern Arizona Volunteer Management Association, and that’s something to be proud of! 

Also working tirelessly behind the scenes are the Animal Care Volunteers who help keepers and staff maintain the larger habitat areas for giraffe, goats, and elephants. This work keeps the animals physically and mentally healthy by providing clean living space and lots of stimulating enrichment. 

Other volunteers you might see at the zoo, often observing animals and recording their behaviors, are the Animal Well-Being or Animal Care College Interns, individuals gaining hands-on training for their college and professional degree programs. That group includes University of Arizona students studying for undergraduate degrees in areas such as wildlife biology , wildlife conservation management, and veterinary science. During the Clinical Year of their doctoral programs, University of Arizona veterinary medicine students may choose to work behind the scenes with the Reid Park Zoo veterinary team in their state-of-the-art health center.

Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and from all sorts of backgrounds. Young teen volunteers learn life skills like empathy, patience, and time management with the added benefits of gaining competence in subject matter (wildlife, conservation) and experiencing independence from their parents. Career-oriented volunteers put theory into practice with practical, hands-on training relevant to their professions. Older volunteers use personal and professional skills developed over a lifetime as parents, teachers, business leaders, artists, and makers. As a group, they all foster one thing: Our connection with nature and our need to conserve and protect biological diversity.

If they’re all so different, what’s the common denominator among all these zoo volunteers? Heart, passion, and enthusiasm! With these attributes plus a good dose of classroom training and feet-on-the-ground shadowing experiences, volunteers happily go about their day engaging with guests and forging connections—between you, me, the animals, and our precious natural world. 

In her poem, Earthrise, our youngest ever U.S. Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, inspires us all with her insight into our human connection with, and our shared need to protect, the natural world. For me, this is a clear call to action, a call for volunteering:

“….We all care to protect this world,

This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel

To muster the verve and the nerve

To see how we can serve

Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician

To make it your mission to conserve, to protect,

To preserve that one and only home

That is ours,

To use your unique power

To give next generations the planet they deserve….”

If you have the *heart*, go ahead and make that leap. How the “next generations” of people and animals survive together depends on how we act today. Connect with a community that is close to your heart. With your gift of time, you’ll gain far more than you ever imagined. 

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Important Notes: Some of the volunteer programs at Reid Park Zoo have been paused due to health and safety restrictions related to the Covid pandemic. Training for new volunteers, while historically in-person and on zoo grounds, may be done virtually for the same reasons. Check the zoo’s website frequently to determine when volunteer programs accept applications. 

If you can’t give your time as a volunteer for animals, you might consider making a monetary donation to your favorite non-profit organization. You can give locally to any of these great organizations—Tucson Wildlife Center , The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, and Reid Park Zoo or go global and find a cause through the Wildlife Conservation Network. You can research any charity you’d like to support through the Charity Navigator website to determine just how well an organization uses your donation. You’ll be pleased to know that all the organizations above have the highest 4-star rating.  

As you meander down the pathways at Reid Park Zoo and gaze down at a rhino resting in the shade of a tree, it’s hard to imagine it sprinting across the field at about 30 mph. These large animals may be smaller than elephants but can always beat them in a race! Reid park Zoo has two southern white rhinos-Yebonga and Fireball

Yebonga is a much-loved elderly female. She was born in San Diego on April 15, 1973.  Sometimes good things do happen on tax day. She moved to Tucson on June 8, 1976. With the median life expectancy of white rhinos at 31 years, her 48th birthday was a real celebration. Due to Yebonga’s advanced age, she often chooses to rest in her cool and comfortable barn.  If you don’t see her, Fireball will be usually be out and about. Being outside together does not work as Yebonga doesn’t appreciate the antics of a rowdy teenage boy, but they do visit each other in the barn and are quite happy with the arrangement.

Fireball was born in Glen Rose Texas on December 24, 2002.  He arrived in Tucson On October 2, 2013. He has sired 8 calves at The Wilds, a safari park in Ohio. Fireball’s participation in The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) has already helped his species, a lot.  If an animal population is in decline,  data is collected to determine which animals are a good breeding match. In the future, Fireball may be considered as a breeding match with another rhino, but for now he enjoys lying out in the sun and eating and eating and eating.  White Rhinos eat as much as 100 pounds of food every day! And when he’s not munching, he likes to rearrange the rocks in his habitat, roll in the mud and lounge under a tree. He also loves a good belly rub.  All those activities make him hungry, of course.

Yebonga and Fireball are Southern White Rhinos. ‘White’ is really a misnomer.  The word ‘white’ may have been mistaken for the Afrikaans word for ‘wide’, referring to their wide square mouth with straight lips, which are perfect for grazing on grasses in South Africa. They are herbivores but interestingly, can eat plants that are toxic to other animals. This helps to keep those plants under control and means their constant grazing protects any number of smaller species.

The rhinos’ small eyes on the side of the head give them vision on the sides but limited vision in the front. A great sense of smell and hearing make up for this. The largest part of the rhino brain is dedicated to the olfactory sense, which indicates how important the sense of smell is for survival. Being able rotate their ears independently compensates for the compromised visual abilities, allowing them to hear the sounds all around with equal intensity.

Like their friends the elephants, the rhinos’ thick skin is susceptible to sunburn, so rolling in mud gives them that extra layer of protection and helps with annoying insects. At The Reid Park Zoo, the keepers make sure that there is always plenty of mud for them to enjoy!

The next time you see Fireball or Yebonga, check out their feet. They are ‘odd- toed ungulates’, along with zebras, horses and tapirs. This means that they walk on an odd number of toes, each encased in a hard shell (hoof). Rhinos have three toes on their wide round feet, but the foot is small considering the amount of weight they must support. Reid Park Zoo is diligent about checking the feet to prevent problems due to the heavy load they must carry. Yebonga and Fireball each top the scales at over 4000 pounds, each about as heavy as a small car.  The rhino head can weigh 1000 pounds! And the large hump of muscle on the back of the neck is there to help support and allow it to move.

The word rhinoceros means “horned nose.” The horns on the rhino consist of compressed strands of keratin, like fingernail fibers. The Southern White Rhino has two horns; the largest can grow up to 79 inches, while the smaller horn may reach 22 inches. The Southern White Rhino is currently classified as near threatened, and poaching for their horns is still the biggest threat to these majestic animals. Human development and habitat loss are also leading to their decline in the wild. 

Reid Park Zoo provides exemplary care to all animals who live there. But they also contribute to every other zoo’s knowledge of the species in they care for. One example is that our small but world-class zoo is responsible for identifying a Vitamin E deficiency that can occur in rhinos in human care, so rhinos in accredited zoos across the country now benefit from this discovery! The zoo is also actively involved with the International Rhino Foundation. Protecting rhino populations in the wild and research aimed at improving the chances for long- term survival of all rhino species is an essential part of conservation strategies. 

And of course, Yebonga and Fireball are great ambassadors for their species!

The greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces.

In the desert, there is almost nothing that has greater appeal than a green oasis. Our city parks are treasures that attract Tucsonans daily for picnics, bird watching and just lying on green grass. Perhaps the oldest and most admired of all the parks is Reid Park, in midtown Tucson. Established in 1925 Randolph Park included a golf course and park, with a baseball stadium added in 1937. There are some delightful aerial photos of the seemingly barren park from the late 30s. The 160 acres on the southwest were renamed Reid Park in 1978 after Gene C. Reid, Tucson’s first Parks Director. 

When water features were added to the park, Reid Park literally came to life. The two ponds immediately attracted many bird species, and the ponds were soon home to many released “Pond Slider” pet turtles as well as ducks, many of whom had been adopted by well-meaning elementary schoolchildren whose teachers had incubated eggs in classrooms.  Cute ducklings soon grew into large, noisy adults, and many were released into Reid Park’s ponds.   Water in the desert is almost magical in its attraction for wildlife and humans, and all Tucsonans have understandably come to treasure the Reid Park green space. 

Two events in the 1960s made the park even greener: The Cele Peterson Rose Garden and the Reid Park Zoo. The Zoo in particular has become especially enticing to native flora and fauna. While the zoo is known for being home to hundreds of exotic animals from around the world, most people don’t realize it is also home to hundreds of other “volunteer” animals (and plants) that, like humans, thrive in an oasis. 

The Reid Park Zoo has become a magnet for wildlife and, as it has expanded from its very modest start in 1965, the numbers of animal (and plant) guests has increased exponentially.  This will continue as the zoo expands into The Pathway to Asia.

The Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of all of the Park’s green spaces. The Zoo provides many diverse and rich habitats. While these were specifically constructed to mimic the natural habitats of the zoo inhabitants, they also provide an amazing array of plant cover, moisture content, humidity and food availability (yes, food provided for zoo animals is a fabulous treat for many wild animals). In addition, the zoo has intentionally created additional green spaces not found in the park outside the zoo, most notably the new Pollinator Garden, a hot spot for butterflies and hummingbirds.   

While there are many examples of zoo guest species, including countless ducks from the Park’s ponds, I will discuss two of my favorites. Black Crowned Night Herons are remarkable birds common to freshwater swamps. They seem to flourish in the zoo and watching them is a special treat. Vermillion Flycatchers are spectacular red birds that are normally found near streams. The diverse Zoo habitats apparently make these stunning birds feel at home. Neither of these wonderful creatures would be visiting central Tucson if it weren’t for the diversity and richness of the habitats the zoo has created. 

In summary, you may plan a visit to the zoo to see African Wild Dogs or Anteaters, but for me, I am equally thrilled to see our rare native animals that would otherwise never be Reid Park visitors. It is no exaggeration to say that the Reid Park Zoo is the greenest of Reid Park green spaces. Expansion of the zoo will only create more “dark green” space in the park and I can hardly wait to see what new visitors it will attract. 

Red Pandas are beautiful, elusive, almost secretive animals that live in mountain forests in Asia. They are adorably cute, they have several amazing adaptations for their environment, and their number in the wild is dropping fast – Red Pandas are endangered, and they will need human help to survive. 

Male and female Red Pandas are the same size, about the size of a housecat. They have dense fur with beautiful coloration. The Red Panda’s scientific name (Ailurus fulgens) translates to “fire-colored cat” or “fire fox,” and you can see how they got that name. An adult Red Panda’s back is a fiery orange-red, its belly and legs are black, and its tail is long and striped with rings of red and white. Its head is round, with a short snout and short, pointed ears. Its face resembles the face of a racoon or a weasel, with a “mask” of red, white jowls and snout, and dark “tear tracks” trailing down from its eyes. Male and female Red Pandas have this same pattern of coloration. A Red Panda’s colors stand out when you see one in the open, but they provide excellent camouflage when the animal is in trees in its natural habitat. 

Today, Red Pandas live in a narrow range of land in the mountains of India, Nepal, and China, but by studying fossils from around the world, biologists have learned that Red Pandas once roamed wide areas. In fact, these fossils show that about 40 million years ago, there were Red Pandas in many parts of what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. Modern-day Red Pandas resemble racoons and weasels, and fossils confirm that they are related to these species, but biologists who have studied the genes of these animals and scientists who have studied their behavior and habitat have concluded that the relationship between Red Pandas and racoons and weasels is not really very close. 

What about Giant Pandas?  Red Pandas and Giant Pandas share part of their names, of course, and they eat similar diets, but they really are not at all close to each other in evolution. So why are they both called pandas? Well, the name “panda” may have come from a word in one of the local languages around their natural habitat that roughly translates to “bamboo eater” – and eating bamboo is something Red Pandas and Giant Pandas certainly have in common!  In the end, though, most scientists conclude that Red Pandas are their own branch of the evolutionary tree, called the Ailuridae

They may not be close evolutionary cousins, but Red Pandas and Giant Pandas do have an unusual anatomical feature in common – they both have a “false thumb.” This is due to having a wrist bone (the sesamoid bone) that has evolved to protrude and function a bit like a thumb. This “false thumb” is really useful for holding and stripping leaves off bamboo. When species that are not closely related have similar evolutionary adaptations like this one, biologists call it “convergent evolution.” 

Red Pandas have other unusual characteristics, and one is their diet. Red Pandas eat mainly plants. Most of their diet is bamboo leaves and shoots – they eat about one-third of their body weight in bamboo every day! – but they also eat leaves of other trees, berries, mushrooms, bird eggs, and sometimes even small animals. 

Red Pandas are sometimes called “herbivorous carnivorans.”  What in the world does that mean?  Red Pandas’ closest animal relatives – racoons and weasels – are true carnivores. They eat a lot of meat. A Red Panda’s digestive tract is like that of a true carnivore, with a single-chambered stomach and a relatively short intestine. And as with true carnivores, their intestines don’t contain the microbes that most herbivores have for efficiently digesting plant material, so they don’t efficiently extract nutrients from the plants they eat.

Red Pandas’ teeth, though, have features of both carnivores and herbivores. They have incisors like (other) carnivores, but they also have large, relatively flat molars like herbivores. And their molars have ridges on top that help the Red Panda to grind up tough plant material like bamboo. Because their digestive tracts extract little of the nutrients from the plants they eat, though, pandas spend almost all their time either eating or sleeping. Taking all of this together, “herbivorous carnivorans” seems like a tailor-made description for Red Pandas! 

Red Pandas in the wild are solitary animals except during breeding season, and usually hide from predators and humans. Individuals use urine and secretions from scent glands to mark the boundaries of their territories. Their solitary lifestyle and good camouflage make it tricky for people to find them in the wild and difficult for wildlife biologists to observe their behavior or count them accurately. Most wildlife biologists who study Red Pandas, though, estimate that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. 

This small a number of animals, combined with the fragmentation of their natural habitat, increases the risk of genetic inbreeding in the wild populations that can weaken the species as a whole and accelerate their disappearance. And the number of Red Pandas in the wild is dropping – biologists estimate that there only half as many Red Pandas in the world today as there were just 20 years ago. They are definitely an endangered species!

But why are Red Pandas disappearing? A major factor is that the wild forests they live in are more and more being used for logging or are being cut for farmland, so the Red Pandas’ natural habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. Other important factors in the decline of Red Pandas in the wild are the illegal wildlife trade and poaching for fur. 

Almost all the Red Pandas in the top zoos in North America and Europe have been born and raised in zoos. Many of these AZA-accredited zoos have developed a “Species Survival Plan” for Red Pandas, in which they work together to share information about caring for Red Pandas and managing their breeding.  In the protected environment of reputable zoos, Red Pandas are being bred to maintain the genetic diversity that will make them hardy if and when they need to be introduced into dwindling populations in the wild. 

Zoos that participate in the Species Survival Plan also support efforts to preserve the Red Panda’s natural habitat in Asia and to find ways for Red Pandas in the wild to live in minimal conflict with humans. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson plans to help in these efforts by joining the Species Survival Plan when the Zoo adds Red Pandas to its collection of endangered species in its Pathway to Asia expansion.  And of course when the Red Pandas arrive, the Zoo will be adding a large helping of adorably cute!

Have you ever gotten close enough to see the hair on a baby elephant’s body?  Reid Park Zoo guests have, three times now!

Sundzu and his mother, the herd’s Matriarch Litsemba, came to Tucson in 2012 when he was just one year old and still nursing.  He wowed guests with his curious nature and large eyes. 

Only two years later, in 2014, Sundzu’s little sister was born in the Reid Park Zoo on Tucson’s birthday, and she immediately stole the show! Newborn Nandi always wanted to be around all the other members of the herd, which included her Aunt Lungile, her mother, her big brothers and her almost 13,000- pound Dad, Mabu. Nandi has been adventurous from the start and didn’t hesitate to jump right into the mud wallows with her much larger family members. Luckily she was never smushed. Her family has always taken great care of her. And now she’s a big sister!

On April 6, 2020 the Reid Park Zoo welcomed their second “real native Tucsonan” African elephant calf, Mapenzi. Her birth brought joy and hope to Tucson during a very difficult period of the Pandemic, and she’s been continuing her good work ever since. 

Just about 30 minutes after her birth, Penzi somehow coordinated her legs to stand tall enough to nurse from Tucson’s largest Mom. Penzi, like all babies, learns by observing her family, and she has been on a steep learning curve since April of last year. A very important lesson she mastered early is that the elephant care team gives great scratches and tasty treats! You’ll usually see Penzi at her mother’s side, or just a couple trunks’ lengths away from Nandi, watching her closely. It’s safe to say Nandi is her little sister’s favorite elephant. And Nandi has shown Mapenzi everything from walking backwards, to foraging for treats in the puzzle feeder walls, and just last week, the most advanced move yet: How much fun it is to slip and slide down the hillside into the moat!

The Reid Park Zoo’s visitors and online followers have endless opportunities to observe and learn about elephants and how a breeding herd grows and lives together. The elephant expansion was carefully built with green technology, and with one thing in mind: what elephants need to take care of themselves and engage in natural behaviors. There are acres of varied terrain with shade for foraging, mud wallows, a gigantic 98,000 gallon pool and just the perfect mix of dirt mounded for dust bathing in several areas. Also, the keepers provide enrichment – ways to keep the herd physically and mentally active every day by adding variety and surprise to this beautiful habitat. For example, they might bring a  in new log or tree trunk (fun for stepping over or dragging around, or stripping the bark from it for a snack) that wasn’t there yesterday, or maybe a new type of treat hidden in surprise locations. Sometimes Mother Nature helps out too!

The Reid Park Zoo elephant ambassadors are safe and well cared for by their rockstar animal care staff and adored by the public. However, their cousins in the wilds of Africa need our help preserving their habitat and also our protection from poaching.   

The Reid Park Zoo works in partnerships around the world and at home to protect wildlife and wild places. A portion of your admission and memberships dollars are set aside to help with in-situ conservation. An important part of the Zoo’s conservation funding goes to the Tanzania Conservation and Science Program to support Dr. Charles Foley’s work with the African Elephant. Also, the Zoo is happy to provide guests with information about an organization called 96-elephants. This group supports efforts against elephant poaching, and their name is based on a sad statistic: on average, 96 elephants are killed every day to support the ivory trade.

Mabu, the Zoo’s huge and majestic bull elephant, has recently been heard trumpeting  the news that on March 25th The International Union for Conservation of Nature updated their listing of African elephants. There is new consensus by scientists of the IUCN to list two groups of African elephant species. The African savanna elephant is endangered and the African forest elephant is listed Critically Endangered. Many in the field believe this new distinction will help focus and strengthen conservation efforts locally and internationally.

There is still much work to be done.

And this is how the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion is for the greater good. The expansion will connect guests with even more wild animal ambassadors in gorgeous naturalistic habitats that bring out each animal’s natural instincts and behaviors. The Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and in 2019 AZA Zoos and Aquariums sent $230 million to in-situ conservation around the world. With your help, RPZ will continue growing their conservation funding.   

Why not join in? Come enjoy the coolness of shade trees as you relax and  observe Litsemba’s amazing breeding herd this summer.

Hot Tip: Reid Park Zoo elephants love to swim when it rains. This summer Mapenzi is sure to work up the nerve to join the rest of the herd in their pool. It will be a joy to see her little trunk, kind of like a periscope, come up out of the water to breathe! 

From that tiny common side-blotched lizard scurrying under your garage door to the bold Eastern Collared Lizard calmly basking right in front of you, our desert lizards have amazing ways to survive and thrive. If you’ve lived here a while, you’ve probably encountered hundreds of them. But now, Tucson, it’s time to meet The King of the Lizards.

The Reid Park Zoo’s expansion will be bringing us the biggest lizard on earth – the Komodo Dragon. These real-life fairytale creatures are huge, they’re fascinating, they’re apex predators, and they’ve been around for 100 million years or so. And though they have no natural enemies, they’re now vulnerable in the wild.  

They’re Huge.  And Hungry.

These giants average about 10 feet long and 154 pounds for males, and the largest Komodo Dragon on record was 10.3 feet long and weighed 366 pounds. And they’re incredibly strong, especially in the muscular jaw and neck area. They are such efficient eaters that they can eat up 80% of their own body weight in just one day. Luckily, their stomachs can expand. And they have another useful trick for that sluggish feeling you get after overeating. If they sense a threat and need to flee quickly, they simply throw up their stomach contents and lose the extra weight.

What about that fearsome bite?

The Komodo Dragon is an ambush predator, lurking patiently by the side of known wildlife paths to conserve energy, then leaping and striking when a tantalizing animal passes by. Its favorite meal in the wild is the Timor Deer, but it will eat anything from large water buffalo to its own newly-hatched offspring.

The Dragons’ teeth are large, they’re sharp, and they’re serrated. They’re also breeding grounds for bacteria, since their particular brand of oral hygiene, leaving scraps of their previous meals on and between their choppers, encourages the development of around 50 different bacterial strains. Seven of these are highly septic and thrive in the dragons’ saliva. As if that weren’t enough, researchers have also located a venom gland in the lower jaw, and that venom happens to be an anticoagulant. The effects of a dragon bite are generally profuse bleeding and the onset of sepsis. The victim will often flee, but after a few days, will surely succumb to the attack. And the Komodo Dragon has an acute sense of smell (via its flickering tongue) which can locate its injured prey even when it’s miles away.

Luckily, because the Dragons tend to scuffle with each other when they’re feeling peckish, this lethal bite has no effect – except perhaps for some disfiguration – on their fellow lizard kings.

Those poor little things.

Let’s begin with the hatchlings, whose sometimes unfortunate fate was alluded to above. Komodo dragons are generally solitary, but breed annually, though the female individuals lay eggs only every two years. Clutches are between 15-30 eggs.  But as the females are naturally solitary creatures, if it’s their year to lay eggs, they can always skip the actual breeding and through parthenogenesis, lay perfectly fertile eggs without the assistance of a male. Well, not perfectly fertile – all the “fatherless” hatchlings will be male.

The eggs are roughly the size of grapefruit, and are laid in nests on hillsides, on the ground, or in  mounds which have been vacated by another indigenous species, the orange-footed scrub fowl. Female  Komodo Dragons have also been known to dig decoy nests to protect the eggs from predators, including fellow Dragons. Some females behave in a maternal fashion for the three months of incubation, guarding the eggs, but others, like so many reptiles, simply lay the eggs and abandon them. Hatchlings lucky enough to make it to hatching immediately scramble up the nearest tree, where the heavy, hungry adults of their kind can’t reach them. They’re  about 16 inches long and are precocial – ready to find their own food right away. There’s plenty of food available up in the trees, and the young Dragons will enjoy this arboreal period of their lives for about 4 years, finally coming down when they’re around four feet in length.

The Daily life of an adult Komodo Dragon

The Dragons are indigenous to five islands in Indonesia, four in Komodo National Park (Komodo, Rinca, Gili Montang, and Gili Dasami) and another island outside the park, called Flores.

The mostly solitary life of adult Komodo Dragons consists of four things: hunting, eating, basking in the sun (they’re ectothermic), and lots and lots of sleeping. Most of these require very little energy, and researchers have discovered that even though these reptiles are capable of travelling long distances, they almost never stray from the areas where they and their progenitors have always lived.   

They do have great homing abilities, though, as demonstrated by an experiment in which adults were relocated on their native island, as far as 13.7 miles away from their home. Within four months, all of the dragons relocated on land had returned to their home territories. However, those relocated across a waterway, though they are perfectly capable of swimming, seemed to decide it was too much trouble – or perhaps too great an expenditure of energy, to return to their ancestral homes and adapted to the new locations without much fuss.

Why is this species now considered vulnerable?

Their numbers in the wild are decreasing, largely through human encroachment, habitat fragmentation, the illegal wildlife trade, and the burning of grasslands in order for humans to hunt the Dragons’ favorite prey, the Timor Deer. Also, as evolutionary stars, they generate a substantial amount of income for Indonesia through tourism – where guides feed them unnatural foods to make them drowsy and suitable for photographs with tourists, while those tourists, even if they don’t mean to, are altering the Dragons’ natural environments just by being there.   

The research and breeding of Komodo Dragons that can be safely done in human care is now more important than ever. The Reid Park Zoo hopes you’ll come see this most amazing lizard once the Pathway to Asia expansion is complete! Just by visiting, you’ll be helping the Zoo in their efforts to conserve these ancient and fascinating creatures.

A New Wild Cat is Coming to Tucson

That’s not a typo, that space between Wild and Cat.  Although he may resemble Wilbur, our University of Arizona bobcat—they both have that lovely curlicue on their foreheads—this new wild cat is a Fishing Cat. And he’s got the paws to prove it! 

Fishing Cats are one of about 33 small wild cat species living throughout the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Unlike his southwest desert cousin who chases land-based prey like rabbits and mice, the Fishing Cat stalks the riverbanks of mangrove swamps in Asia, looking for its favorite food—fish! About twice the size of a domestic cat and equipped with webbed front paws and dense, compact fur to keep it warm in cold water, this wild cat is perfectly designed for diving head-first into the water and catching fish, both for food and fun. 

Because Fishing Cats are small, and some would say less charismatic than their larger cousins—visualize this little kitty beside a lion, tiger, cheetah, or leopard—they have long been out-competed for conservation dollars. Long-term studies are scarce and sightings of these cats have been so rare that some researchers believe they have become extinct in parts of their geographical range. Only in the past twenty years have scientists caught glimpses of these elusive creatures through accidental sightings or serendipitous camera trap shots. 

In the wetlands and mangrove forests of South and Southeast Asia, the array of plants and animals that share this ecosystem is staggering! Fishing Cats are just one part of a complex food chain that includes shorebirds, sea birds, otters, turtles, shellfish, and even crab-eating macaques. The amazing mangrove forests in which they live and keep tidy serve as a buffer, or bridge, between life that thrives in freshwater and life that thrives in the sea. And depend on it: In such a complex system, the survival of each species is intricately dependent on the others.

One thing is for certain: We are only beginning to discover the critical part this cat plays in maintaining the health of the mangrove forests. How important are these forests? In the words of University of Arizona Research Scientist and former Rachel Carson Scholar, Dr. Ashwin Naidu, within these gnarly, amazing root systems, the mangroves can store up to five to ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical rainforests.

So situated in one of the most important ecosystems on our planet, each stocky little Fishing Cat lives a solitary life, only coming together briefly once a year for breeding. Because they live such secretive lives, we don’t fully understand them or their capacity for adaptation. Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, in large part due to habitat loss. The lucrative financial forces of commercial fishing—our voracious appetite for farmed shrimp and farmed crabs—have diminished their range and ability to breed. 

But their plight has not gone unnoticed. More scientists are now taking a good, hard look at the key role these cats play in maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Some field researchers have had success with conservation projects that prioritize the needs of both the animals and the communities that surround them, but, as populations in the wild decrease faster than this species can procreate, zoos will also play a vital role in preventing their outright extinction.

The Association for Zoos and Aquariums has created a Species Survival Plan, or SSP, which will help keep the Fishing Cats’ gene pool safe and healthy. As zoos learn more about the cat’s biology and its needs, that knowledge will be shared with research scientists working in the field. Their gene pool will be protected for as long as it takes to ensure they can thrive, once again, in a safe and protected wild environment, free from the threat of extinction. 

As a lifelong cat lover, I am thrilled that the Fishing Cat will be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, and I hope you’re excited to meet this new ambassador for small cat species everywhere. As sentinels to a part of the planet we don’t fully understand, their story will give us a window into a world that now demands our attention and our protection. 

So rally round, all you Wildcat fans, and give a warm welcome to the newest wild cat in town, the Asian Fishing Cat! 

The Reid Park Zoo, and all other AZA-accredited zoos, are much more than “living museums.”   They are vibrant, beautiful destinations with an urgent mission.   It’s important to the Reid Park Zoo that you come and visit, and they’ll help you do it.

Why?   Because just by visiting, you’ll be helping to support conservation efforts and sustainable living.   This will be even more significant when the Pathway to Asia expansion becomes a reality, because there will be many more endangered species you’ll be supporting simply by coming to the Zoo to see them.

Reaching Out to the Community

The Zoo has many community outreach programs, partnering with charities and non-profits, because they understand that doing good for community means doing good for the animals and the environment!      You probably already know that thousands of schoolchildren visit the Reid Park Zoo for free every year, and you may have heard about special events the Zoo offers.  

One example is Dream Night.  It’s a free evening at the Zoo just for children with any kind of healthcare or mobility challenges along with their families.  Nobody needs to worry about accessibility or stigma.  RPZ partners with the Desert Museum to host Dream Night in alternating years.   It’s a wonderful, well-attended event, and creates treasured memories for the families who attend, but also for the Zoo staff and volunteers.   

But what about something for individuals or families?   Maybe you don’t have a whole morning or afternoon to go to the Zoo or chaperone a field trip for one of your children.     Maybe you don’t feel you can afford the tickets.   Maybe you’re differently abled and worry that you might not be able to get around comfortably.  Maybe you just need a quick pick-me-up during your lunch hour.  

The Reid Park Zoo has you covered

Can you visit the Zoo FOR FREE?

Yes!   Take advantage of the Pima County Public Library’s Culture Pass Program.   Go to your local library, and see how you can get free tickets to visit the Zoo.   The Zoo donates about 6,000 of these free tickets every year.   Right now, due to Covid restrictions, you’ll need a reservation to enter the  Reid Park Zoo at a certain time. Go to the website for more information on the Culture Passes and all the other community-access programs of the RPZ.

Dollar Day

In conjunction with Reid Park’s Family Festival in the Park, the Zoo offers $1 admission.  (This program has been paused due to Covid – but they plan bring it back soon!)  Stay tuned.  

What if you receive SNAP or WIC assistance?

The Reid Park Zoo has very low admission prices for such a wonderful place and especially compared to other accredited zoos in the U.S.      But if you receive food assistance, this can help make a Zoo visit even more affordable.  Just show your EBT card to the front gate, and you’ll be eligible for a $4 discount on up to 7 tickets.  That means you can buy an adult ticket for just $6.50, a child for just $2.50, and a senior for just $4.50.  No charge for those under 2 .

What if you’re differently abled?

You should go to the Zoo!   The Reid Park Zoo meets all ADA guidelines.   If you don’t like big crowds, they can advise you of the best times to visit.  There are stroller and wheelchair rentals.   The RPZ allows trained service animals to accompany you (except inside the aviaries, where lots of birds are just walking around).   The website even has a map to identify areas where the sensory experiences (sounds, smells, and so on) might be a bit more intense.

How can you visit The Reid Park Zoo if you only have a short break or are stuck at your computer?    

How about checking out the ZooCams?  You can see Giraffes, lions, elephants and even lemurs and grizzlies!    See their real-time behaviors during the day –  and all you have to do is log into the Zoo’s website and watch for as long as you like.  The website also offers lots of information about each of the animals you’re seeing.

These programs to help you connect to the Reid Park Zoo are an important part of a greater good the Zoo pursues every day.  They’re committed to welcoming as many Tucsonans as possible, spreading the word about conservation, and continuing to provide world-class care to the animals in their charge.  But these animals need help from all of us.    Go to the Zoo and be a part of it!

If you’re a regular visitor the Reid Park Zoo, you’ve probably noticed that somehow you feel better there, and better after the visit.   What’s going on?

Maybe:

  •  You visited zoos as a child, and visiting the Reid Park Zoo brings back many positive memories
  • You love being outdoors, especially in an environment where you can find shade and places to rest in the middle of a hot Tucson day.  
  • You need to interact with nature
  • You like to get exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise
  • You’re  stressed out and need an escape from the pace and obligations of your urban lifestyle
  •  You’re worried about climate change and want to find out how you can help mitigate its effects
  • You want recreation that’s not just good for you but beneficial to the community
  • Or, it’s just uplifting to spend time in a place where people are feeling happy and positive

What if you have high blood pressure? 

You’ve probably heard of the many research studies verifying the positive effects on our health of  gardening or having pets in the home, but not everyone is able to care for pets or has the strength to garden.   It turns out that visiting a zoo can also have these effects.  Psychologists and physiologists are beginning to study the positive health impacts of spending time in a zoo (like the Reid Park Zoo) where the environment is beautiful and the animals are well treated.  A study in Japan has actually documented the physical effects of visiting a zoo – reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as well as blood pressure readings.

It’s not news that exercise is beneficial for all of us, especially for children who may spend more and more of their days on “screen time.” It’s not always easy to reach that magic number of 10,000 steps per day – but it’s much easier to do when you’re walking through a safe environment, looking forward to a new wonder around every corner.  A visit to the Reid Park Zoo will allow you to get those steps in without really even noticing it.   You can stop and rest whenever you need to – but odds are, while you’re sitting on a bench in a shady spot, you’ll still be able to see one or more species playing, lounging, eating, or watching YOU with some interest.

You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Better

It’s well established that for many people, interaction with animals can be a great help in recovering from illness or injury, or as a treatment for anxiety and depression.  But did you know that zoos that were closed for a period of time during the pandemic discovered that zoo visitors are also important to the animals’ health and well being? 

 It’s nice to know that the Reid Park Zoo’s Meerkats, who are always on watch, will always be happy to see you and alert the mob that you’re nearby.    You will also be cheering up the marvelous Lar Gibbon, definitely the gregarious Sulpher-crested Cockatoo, and countless other creatures there.

Visiting the Reid Park Zoo will definitely do you some good.  How about taking a friend,  a child, or an  elderly neighbor so you can spread the benefits?

We invite you to join us in feeling better and doing more good by supporting the Reid Park Zoo’s  Pathway to Asia expansion!