Conservation

 What do you think of when conservation comes to mind?  Is it merely a pleasant but abstract concept, or is it something that you do externally such as attending your Zoo and participating in the giraffe feed? Is it something you do daily at a more personal level, such as using less single-use plastic or recycling your bottles and towel rolls, taking shorter showers, or carpooling to work?  If your conservation actions in the larger community and in aspects of your personal life overlap, then you’re taking a step in a common,  meaningful, and impactful direction.

Start At the Zoo

The issue of conservation is complex and it permeates everything we do.   Every day and every action at The Reid Park Zoo is designed to educate the public by exhibiting concrete conservation measures.  As  members of an AZA-certified zoo ,  the staff at Tucson’s Zoo realizes that all animals in their care (those visible to you in their  habitats, as well as the ones behind the scenes who sometimes appear with an educator on Zoo grounds or travel out into the community to delight Tucsonans and advocate for conservation)  are ambassadors for their species.  These animal ambassadors enable staff to not only study animal behavior; they also allow their caretakers and the public to study them in order to bolster animal diversity and preserve the ecosystems they are part of. 

In addition to supporting conservation funds, your zoo experience envelops you in the ‘4R’ concepts of Reduce Reuse, Refuse, and Recycle. ‘Reduce’ the amount of waste you generate; ‘Reuse’ as many recyclable products as possible; ‘Refuse’ the usage of single-use products such as plastic straws; and ‘Recycle’ items that are eligible for recycling

 Phone Apps

 There are apps that can be downloaded to your smart phone to support conservation measures endorsed by Reid Park Zoo such as Seafood Watch, which allows you to learn about sustainable fishing practices and support these in your own shopping.    Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created an app to help you learn about and support sustainable palm oil practices by identifying the source of palm oil used in commonly- purchased grocery items.   About palm oil – it seems to be everywhere, but it has an outsized impact on wildlife conservation when it’s not produced sustainably.    Specifically, orangutans are a vulnerable species because of unsustainable palm oil practices, but they’re not the only ones.   Palm oil agricultural practices (and habitat loss) are central to the plight of tigers, who are critically endangered.

 Conservation Guests

 Reid Park Zoo has been lucky to host conservation enthusiasts such as Dr. Laurie Marker of ‘The Cheetah Conservation Fund ; Joel Sartori , an avid photographer whose ‘Photo Ark’ project is seeking to document the world’s animals in an attempt to foster awe and support for animal diversification; and The Anteaters and Highways project  run by Dr. Arnaud Desbiez , a project which  gets financial support from  the Reid Park Zoo.    By the way, on Dr. Desbiez’s more recent visit to Tucson’s zoo, where he offered presentations about his amazing project in Brazil, he noted how large and well-fed the Zoo’s Giant Anteaters are; this is great news, because this pair has a breeding recommendation and are being slowly re-introduced to one another this very summer!      

These are only a few of the in situ conservation projects and professionals that our Zoo supports.  You can see a more comprehensive list of the Reid Park Zoo’s conservation partners on their website (https://reidparkzoo.org/conservation/partners/).    And when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete, they will be actively engaged in more such projects, particularly on behalf of two critically endangered species, the Malayan Tigers and Rodrigues Fruit Bats.  Through their own research and close care, they will also be supporting threatened species such as Siamang Gibbons, Red Pandas, and Komodo Dragons.  

Personal Conservation

For a list of 50 Personal conservation measures, please check out this site .  Evidence shows that conservation permeates everything we do. No effort is too small to make a difference!  

Want to help?   Visit the Reid Park Zoo, or another AZA-accredited institution – a portion of your admission will be supporting conservation, every time.  By the way, it’s important to determine whether a zoo or aquarium has earned AZA accreditation, because only about 10% of zoos and aquariums in the U.S. meet the high standards to earn this designation.   You want to be sure you’re supporting only the best in animal care and commitment to conservation.

 At home, learn about and begin to practice the 4Rs!  Load an app or two on your phone.  If you can, send a donation to a conservation organization – there are so many established and reputable ones – that work to safeguard a species or an environment that you care about.    

Readers of that beloved classic book, Ring of Bright Water, all agree that there is no animal cuter, more active, or more fun to watch than the otter!  So do many visitors to the Reid Park Zoo. Comfortable on land and in the water, otters are superb acrobats. Visit the Zoo and you will see them bat balls and other toys around their pool and dive for toys, food, and just for the joy of it.   Sometimes their play looks like water ballet! 

Six continents are in luck

Otters live on all of the earth’s continents except Antarctica. Fish are their favorite food, although many species of otter also eat crustaceans (such as crabs) and frogs and even insects. Their typically sharp eyesight helps them to see prey, even when it is well camouflaged. They need to eat about 10% of their body weight each day. For an adult human, that would be equal to eating about 15 pounds of food a day!  Maybe if we were as active as these creatures, that might be a reasonable diet for us.

Rivers, oceans, otters

The thirteen species of otters are of two main types: river otters and sea otters. River otters, as you might guess, live in and around rivers and lakes. Sea otters, which generally are larger, live on ocean beaches and hunt for food in the ocean and in tide pools. Within each of these two categories, there are many different species. All are sleek and acrobatic and immensely curious, both on land and in the water. African spotted-necked otters, the species you can see at Reid Park Zoo, are river otters. They are found in the wild in lakes and larger rivers in a large portion of central and west Africa. 

In the mood for a romp?

Otters are so playful that a family of otters is sometimes called a “romp.” That name alone sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And in the water, a group of otters may be called a “raft” because they look like they are stuck to each other. Being very social creatures, some otter species live in groups of up to 20 individuals. How do they communicate with each other?  Mainly by using lots of different kinds of vocalizations, including chirps and whistles and growls. Different calls can warn other otters of danger or send a reassurance of safety. In one fascinating study of giant river otters, each otter family was shown to have its own “language” of vocalizations with different, distinct meanings. 

Great swimmers, and problem solvers too

Otters all have long, sleek bodies that taper into thick, muscular tails. They range from 2 to almost 6 feet long. They typically have short legs and webbed feet – the better to swim with – and those feet are tipped by sharp claws that help them to tear open their food. They will even use stones to crack open shellfish – sometimes cracking them on their chests while swimming on their backs! 

Otters’ fur is well adapted for life in the water. An under-layer, called “underfur,” is thick and soft to provide insulation, and an outer layer, made of longer “guard” hairs, helps to trap a thin layer of warm, dry air around the animals as they swim. Otters have to eat a lot to stay warm, so they may hunt for many hours each day. Keeping their skin dry not only keeps them warm, but also helps their skin to stay healthy. Large river otters have other interesting adaptations: their slit-like nostrils and ears can be closed when they swim, to keep the water out.

Family Life

A mother otter typically gives birth after two to three months of pregnancy, and the newborn pups stay in the nest, called a “holt,” for just a month or two before starting to explore every nook and cranny of their immediate surroundings.   By about two months, they start to swim, and when they are about one year old, they may leave their family to explore more broadly. Otters typically live to about 8 to 16 years old, depending on the particular species, but the oldest living river otter on record was 27 years old!  

Though her exact date of birth is unknown, Pfeiffer, the Reid Park Zoo’s female otter, is believed to be about 20 now!  If you don’t see her in the habitat with the young whippersnapper Hasani, who’s only 9, it’s probably because she’s receiving close “senior animal” monitoring in the Zoo’s state-of-the-art Health Center.  Also in the Health Center, Pfeiffer may see a few animals waiting patiently for their new homes in the Reid Park Zoo expansion, because all animals new to the Zoo undergo a period of intense medical evaluation before being released into their new homes.

Conservation

Pollution and other loss of their natural habitats is forcing otters into smaller and smaller areas in the wild. Some otter species are now listed as endangered. The otters at Reid Park Zoo, African spotted-necked otters, are a species whose numbers in the wild are declining, in part because of degradation and loss of their habitats, and in part because this species has been hunted for its fur. IUCN now classifies African spotted-necked otters as “Near Threatened.”  Recent changes in IUCN designations for other species (think African Savanna Elephants) remind us that a “near threatened” designation can quickly change to a more worrisome category like “vulnerable,” so conservationists are keeping a close eye on the otters’ welfare, both in the wild and in human care.

Almost all of the animal spotlights on this site mention the IUCN and the conservation status of the animals in the Reid Park Zoo.   But what exactly does “conservation status” mean?  Read on to find out!

But First – A Pop Quiz

What do African Elephants, Asian Fishing Cats, Baird’s Tapir, Sloth Bears, Komodo Dragons, Red Pandas, Siamangs, African Elephants, Galapagos Tortoises, Lar Gibbons, Malayan Tigers, African Wild Dogs, Giant Anteaters, Poison Frogs, Lion-Tailed Macaques, Lions, Speke’s Gazelle, Ring-Tailed and Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, and Reticulated Giraffes all have in common?

  1.  Members of these species are already, or will soon be, in the care of the Reid Park Zoo
  2.  All are threatened in the wild and need our help
  3. Both  1 and 2

Very good!  

What do Asian Fishing Cats, Sloth Bears, Giant Anteaters, Komodo Dragons, African Lions, and Reticulated Giraffes have in common?

  1. They each have four legs
  2. They are classified as Vulnerable in the wild and need our help so they don’t become endangered
  3. Both 1 and 2

Next :   What do African Elephants, Baird’s Tapir, Poison Frogs, Red Pandas, Siamang Gibbons, Lar Gibbons, African Wild Dogs, Ring-Tailed Lemurs,  Lion-tailed Macaques, and Speke’s Gazelle have in common?

  1.  All of them either come from the Americas, Africa, or Asia
  2. All of them are Endangered in the wild and need our help
  3. Both 1 and 2

Finally, what could Malayan Tigers, Rodrigues Fruit Bats, Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, and Galapagos Tortoises possibly have in common?

  1.  All four species are fascinating and crucial to their own ecosystems
  2. All four  are Critically Endangered in the wild and will be extinct if we don’t do something soon
  3. Both 1 and 2

How did you do?  Don’t you love multiple choice tests where the answers are always “3”?   The quiz may be easy, but its purpose is completely serious.   The Reid Park Zoo is not large as zoos go, but as you can see, the amazing staff there cares for many, many species which are now threatened in the wild.

Who informs zoos and conservationists? 

But who makes the determination?   The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) is an organization based in Switzerland, and it is the largest and oldest global conservation network in the world.    The IUCN is respected and consulted by government agencies around the world, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) related to conservation, the media, educational institutions, of course zoos and aquariums, and even the business community.   Its signature accomplishment is the IUCN Red List, which has to date determined the conservation status of 134,425 species.  More than 35,000 of those assessed have fallen into the” threatened” category, which means they have been designated as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.

Three levels of threat

What exactly do those labels mean to a species?  Well, in order for a species, say the Malayan Tiger, to be considered Critically Endangered, its numbers in the wild must have plummeted (over the last 10 years or over the last three generations) precipitously, from 80 to 90%.  A species designated as Critically Endangered by the IUCN is “considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.”

 The other two designations, Endangered and Vulnerable, are a sort of step-down from Critically Endangered status – but just a small one.  In simple terms, an Endangered species is on the brink of becoming Critically Endangered if its circumstances in the wild don’t change;  likewise, a Vulnerable species is just about to become Endangered, again if humans don’t intervene to protect habitat, limit poaching and the illegal pet trade, and do our best to mitigate climate change.  

Just this summer (the week of June 20, 2021) the unwelcome news arrived that the IUCN has downgraded the status of African Savanna Elephants, like the herd at our own zoo, from Vulnerable to Endangered.  That makes the continued health of Penzi and Nandi, the two young elephants born at the Reid Park Zoo, of even greater concern.  Luckily the animal care staff monitors these two, and all the other residents of the Zoo, with extraordinarily close attention to their physical health and well being in general.  But the IUCN sometimes has good news – for example, the Giant Panda was actually upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable on the Red List in 2016 – a testament to the power of awareness and effective conservation initiatives.

The IUCN’s latest conclusion is that approximately 28% of the species they have assessed (and this includes amphibians, mammals, birds, conifers, sharks and rays, reef corals, and crustaceans) are now threatened with extinction.   The role of SSPs (Species Survival Plans) and SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) programs is especially critical for such species in AZA-accredited zoos such as the Reid Park Zoo.  

Zoos are important

The Reid Park Zoo expansion will be protecting not only the Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger, but also the lesser-known but equally endangered Rodrigues Fruit Bat.  The Zoo would not be able to house and breed these species without the new, specialized habitats planned for them.  Likewise, The Pathway to Asia expansion  will also welcome and protect Red Pandas, Komodo Dragons, Asian Fishing Cats, and  Siamangs –  and the humans at the Zoo will do all they can to prevent these species from facing extinction.    

They can’t succeed without you

This includes you!     Members of the public can help by going to reputable zoos and aquariums; every AZA -accredited institution has made a practical and also financial commitment to support conservation initiatives on zoo grounds and also in the wild.   So if you visit a wonderful zoo, say The Reid Park Zoo, you’ll enjoy yourself, get some exercise and fresh air, and see countless amazing creatures.  Importantly, though, you’ll also be able to learn about conservation initiatives to protect and save them and their ecosystems, including what all of us can do to mitigate climate change, the biggest threat of all.  And because of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone on this incredibly biodiverse planet, helping save animals and their environments also means you’re working to benefit humans.

 So go to the zoo, love the animals, and join the good work of saving them (and us)!

Monsoon Diversions: A Primate Primer

As the heat and monsoon rains of the desert southwest force us indoors, I thought it might be a good time to dust off that old black and white Composition notebook (you know the one) and reminisce about your early school days. I’d like you to revisit Biology class, when you were first introduced to some of the longest lists in the world, those of the animal, vegetable, and mineral variety. To keep it manageable, let’s just focus on the animals and one Order in particular, the Primates. 

A master list maker classifies…everything on the planet 

Classifying animals has never been an easy task. Carl Linnaeus didn’t attempt his first comprehensive list of animals until the 10th edition of Systema Naturae (1758), his encyclopedic catalog of everything on the planet. To make the list more manageable, Linnaeus and the scientists who came after him divided the Primates into two suborders based on their morphology (size, shape, color, and structure): The Prosimians and the Anthropoids/aka Simians. Think of the Prosimians as pre-Simians (before Apes) on the evolutionary time scale.

Modern DNA technology has shaken things up since then, and distinguishing one species from another remains an ongoing process. In the 21st century, because we can study an organism’s DNA or genome, classification is based on evolutionary history, or phylogeny. In biology, the term phylogenesis means how a species develops and diversifies and how species are related by common ancestors.  

While we may quibble with the content of Linnaeus’ lists, we can be grateful for his idea about naming things. He formalized a standard binomial nomenclature, the two-name system of identifying organisms. The first name, the generic part, identifies the genus, and the second name, the specific part, identifies the species. Unless you’re a biologist, you don’t need to memorize these names; it’s just comforting to know that a standardized system for naming exists.

It’s all down to noses 

Even if you’re not an evolutionary biologist, there are some simple ways you can classify Primates. A good place to start is to identify the continents where these animals live in the wild. You’ll find that Apes live in Africa and Asia, Prosimians in Africa and Asia, and Monkeys in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Exception: A single species of Monkey, the Barbary Macaque, lives in Gibraltar, so technically, Europe. 


Linnaeus differentiated the two Primate suborders based on the structure of their noses.  It’s a good bet the noses aren’t the FIRST things you’ve noticed when seeing a primate, but they will be from now on.

 Create your own handy reference for the next time you visit the zoo.  On a sheet of paper (or mentally), draw a large circle,  and then draw a straight line down from the top to the bottom dividing the circle in half. Each Primate suborder gets half a circle. 

  Here’s a quick glossary.   To describe all these noses in scientific terms, Linnaeus turned to the Greeks. 

Strepsis, a turning around (like a squiggly comma)

Haplo, onefold, single, simple

Platu (Platy), flat or broad (like a plate)

Kata (Cata), down

These prefixes are all attached to the infix Rhin (Rhine), meaning nose

Now that you’re in the know, label one side of the circle Strepsirhines to represent the primitive Prosimians. These species have a wet or moist rhinarium (tip of nose) just like your dog or cat, are heavily reliant on their sense of smell, and are primarily nocturnal. They live in Africa and Asia and include:

  • Lemurs, who live only on the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa and nowhere else in the world
  • Lorises, who live in Asia
  • Loris-related animals, Galagos (Bushbabies) and Pottos, who live in Africa

Label the other side of the circle Haplorhines to represent the Anthropoids/aka Simians. These species have a dry or simple nose (lack of a rhinarium), rely heavily on vision, and are primarily diurnal. They live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and include:

  • Tarsiers, quirky creatures who live only in Asia and share some characteristics with both suborders. Because they are a dry-nosed species, we list them here. 
  • Monkeys and Apes, a huge group of dry-nosed species which are further differentiated by the shape of their nose and orientation of their nostrils. On your drawing, divide the Haplorhine space into two parts and add two more labels. 
  • Platyrrhines, Monkeys who live only in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America). They have a dry or simple nose that is flat with outward-facing nostrils. For Platyrrhine Monkeys, visualize a Common Squirrel Monkey, a Capuchin, or a Marmoset.
  • Catarrhines, represented by two superfamilies of Monkeys and Apes, who live in Africa and Asia except for that single exception, the Barbary Macaque living in Gibraltar. They have a dry or simple nose that is narrow with downward- or forward-facing nostrils. For Catarrhine Monkeys, visualize a Baboon, a Macaque, or a Mandrill. For Catarrhine Apes, visualize a Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Gibbon, or Orangutan. 

If you examine a Primate’s nose and ask yourself these questions—1) does the species have a wet nose/rhinarium or a dry nose?  and 2) if dry, are the nostrils flat and outward-facing or narrow and downward- or forward-facing?  You are well on your way to classifying these animals. 

Would you like to test those classification skills??   Well, there’s a perfect opportunity right in the heart of Tucson.

Visiting Primates at Reid Park Zoo!

If you’d like to spend a great morning outside in nature, I encourage you to stop by the Reid Park Zoo and visit the Primates who live there. Just inside the front plaza area, you can begin your tour by navigating counterclockwise through the areas representing Asia, South America, and Africa. Each Primate’s official conservation status, as determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ,is provided.

Lar Gibbon, Endangered, a Lesser Ape species from Southeast Asia

LOCATION: From the Chilean Flamingo lagoon, follow the main path between the carousel on the left and the Flamingo house on the right. 

Meet 48-year old Billy, Reid Park Zoo’s geriatric Lar gibbon. Famous for his morning territorial song. Eats fruit (loves bananas), nutritional primate biscuits, plant material, occasionally insects or even a small bird. Known for his brachiating skills, swinging hand over hand from ropes in his habitat. Sometimes seen sleeping in a sitting position with his hands resting on his knees.

Common Squirrel Monkey, Least Concern (but exploited), a Monkey species from South America

LOCATION: Continue south a few steps, then turn right towards the South America Loop. Turn left and pass the Jaguar habitat.

Presenting  7-year-old females Glitter and Sparkles and 4-year-old male Parker, the zoo’s young troop of squirrel monkeys. Fast-moving, extremely playful. Eat insects, small vertebrates, fruit, nectar, and flowers. Enjoy foraging and figuring out food puzzles. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Ring-Tailed Lemur, Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Find your way back to the main path. Continue south up the hill and around the corner, bearing right at the Otter habitat, and make your way just a few feet past the Lion pavilion, the roofed structure with bench seating. 

You’ll be delighted to see 9-year-old brothers Oak, Elm, and Linden who came to Tucson from Saint Catherine’s Island, a sanctuary for endangered and near-extinct animals and birds off the coast of Georgia. Most terrestrial of all Lemur species but enjoy climbing ropes and trees in their habitat. Often seen walking with tails erect or perched on platforms with tails hanging down. Eat fruit, nutritional primate biscuits, seeds, nectar, and leafy greens. When cold, cuddle together in one big Lemur ball. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan.   

Lion-Tailed Macaque, Endangered, a Monkey species from India in Asia

LOCATION: Go south towards the Pollinator Garden, then right to the Conservation Learning Center building.

You may need to look up to meet geriatric Macaques Hadji, a 29-year-old male, and Baniece “Beanie,” a 33-year-old female, both born at Reid Park Zoo. If not moving through the lower branches of their trees or on the ground foraging, may be perched up high above you. Eat fruit, seeds, leaves, nutritional primate biscuits, lizards, and insects. Enjoy popsicles or chewing on ice cubes during the hot Tucson summer. 

One more species you can visit now  – and soon we’ll also have the Siamang Gibbons in the Reid Park Zoo expansion….and you won’t want to miss them!   But it’s time to mention the

Black and White Ruffed Lemur, Critically Endangered, a Lemur species from Madagascar off the coast of Africa

LOCATION: Go to the east side of the zoo, near the Alligator and African Wild Dog habitats.

Meet 8-year-old female Tallie and 16-year-old male Junior, a very athletic pair of primarily arboreal Lemurs. Enjoy climbing and hanging from the branches and ropes in their habitat. Tallie has orange eyes. Loud vocalizations when annoyed or startled, sometimes audible from the parking lot. Eat fruit, leaves, seeds, and nectar. Often seen doing what can only be described as Lemur yoga poses. Reid Park Zoo supports the Species Survival Plan. 

Hope for them and for us

The conservation status for most of these species is grim. About a third of all Lemurs are Critically Endangered—one step from Extinction—and the remaining two-thirds are Endangered and threatened with extinction. In mainland Africa, 53% of all Primate species are under threat. 

At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife. Humans need to drastically change their relationship to other primates. 

What’s in it for us? A 2020 article in the Smithsonian Magazine confirmed that people living in awe of nature—having that feeling of “being small in the face of nature”—felt more generous and kinder. Experiencing that same sense of awe is also thought to boost the immune system and sense of creativity.  

By visiting the zoo, you’re helping these incredible primates and other species come back from the brink of extinction. A portion of your admission supports the scientists and conservation organizations working with these species in the wild. 

Think about it

The Primates at Reid Park Zoo representing their cousins in the wild are the face of nature. With the planet’s human population now more than 7 1/2 billion, we vastly outnumber them. When you meet them, appreciate their wildness and experience that sense of awe. Think about your own use of our planet’s resources, how you shop, how you travel, and what you eat. Reflect on how your habits affect the lives of your fellow humans and your fellow Primates. 

You can take action

Humans are a resourceful species, and there is a lot we can do to support our fellow Primates. 

  • Take a stand against the illegal pet trade
  • Stop watching videos or films that feature wild animal “selfies” or “domesticated” exotic animals
  • Practice the 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Repurpose, Recycle, and Reuse
  • Shop sustainably: Use reliable Eco Apps and look for Eco/Green symbols or labels to guide you, such as Sustainable Palm Oil, Fair Trade, Bird Friendly, Seafood Watch, and Forest Stewardship Council
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by ridesharing, cycling, and walking when you can
  • Reduce your carbon footprint by supporting local makers, crafts people, ranchers, and farmers 

When we change our lives, we’ll change their lives. 

On behalf of their counterparts in the wild, all the Primates at Reid Park Zoo—the spry senior, Billy, the energetic youngsters, Glitter, Sparkles, and Parker, the playful brothers, Oak, Elm, and Linden, the nimble seniors, Hadji and Beanie, and the spunky couple, Tallie and Junior—thank you!  

If you’re somebody who likes to visit the Reid Park Zoo, or other reputable zoos and aquariums, chances are you are a little bit more concerned about environmental matters than the average person.   That’s great – but why is it happening?   Psychologists point out that those positive memories you’re getting by watching the animals in a beautiful environment may be a result of a few things:  the experience of seeing a baby elephant imitating her big sister, a pack of wild dogs joyfully running around and jostling one another, or even a rhino enjoying a mud bath can be quite enjoyable and vivid . These sights may even seem familiar and evoke emotions if you imitated your own big sister, jockeyed for position with siblings or friends, or just remember the pleasure of lolling in a cool spot on a hot day.   You’re forming pleasant psychological connections with creatures you would probably never encounter in your lifetime, if not for the Zoo.     

 Familiarity, connection with your own experiences, and even emotion all combine to make a simple moment, like those at the Zoo, significant and memorable.  Possibly you’re also sharing this experience with someone else, which only heightens memories.    And this sort of wonderful experience is a large part of what the Reid Park Zoo, or any quality zoo or aquarium, hopes you’ll gain from visiting.   But there’s something more!   Because you have a chance to learn about and experience these animals in person, not just on a video, you’re much more likely to care about them – and you’re open to learning ways to protect them.  That’s the mission of the Reid Park Zoo, “to create inspiring memories for all by connecting people and animals to ensure the protection of wild animals and wild places.”

Why Care About Conservation?

We expect organizations like the World Wildlife Federation to remind us that wildlife conservation is important, that all of us depend on biodiversity more than we realize, and that the fates of animals in the wild are inextricably linked to the fates of humans.   But you might be surprised that government agencies like FEMA tell us the same things, and international organizations like the United Nations link human sustainability to the preservation of wild places and wildlife as well.   All living things on earth are connected, and though we humans may consider ourselves the alpha species on the planet, in many ways we are dependent on something as simple as a blade of grass or a worm or insect underground that’s aerating the soil in which is grows.

Acceptance of the reality of climate change is growing, probably because even skeptics have to agree that temperatures are changing dramatically, as are severe weather events.   The good news is that the conversations are happening among individuals, in the media, and in governments.    The urgent challenge now is to educate and convince people that our actions may be key to mitigating this crisis. And preserving the wild and its inhabitants is certainly one component of such an effort.   But in order for us to want to mitigate climate change or save endangered species, many people might need to first understand all the benefits that a more stable planet confers upon us, and has always done.  That’s where government agencies, which are primarily concerned with human welfare, come in.  

Not quite ready for a bumper sticker

Have you ever seen a bumper sticker declaring SAVE THE SEA GRASS?  Well, probably not, and it’s not very catchy anyway, but let’s step back and consider sea turtles.   We’ve all seen those wonderful video clips of the young racing toward the ocean directly after hatching, often with helpful humans nearby to ward off opportunistic predators.     But the cuteness factor and attention seem to diminish once they make it to the water, and it’s hoped, to adulthood.   Sea turtles spend their lives underwater munching on sea grass.   And that sea grass depends on the constant trimming that the turtles and other sea creatures provide.  In turn, the sea grass nourishes and provides breeding grounds for many aquatic creatures.   So why should we be concerned about the decline in naturally occurring sea grass beds?   Well, not only the sea turtles but many species of fish depend on that grass, and three billion people around the world depend on the protein that seafood provides.   Also, if you’re concerned about economics, it’s worth knowing that 34 million people worldwide rely on fishing for a living today.  

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

That’s one reason that the U.N. has established the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora) guidelines as part of their Sustainable Development Goals, which all benefit humans.   These include Goal 14, Life Below Water (for example, sea grass!)  Goal 15, Life on Land (e.g. rainforests), and Goal 1, No Poverty.  Wait, what?  No poverty?     How does that relate to conservation?

SDG Goal 1 seeks “the economic advancement of all humankind”, and this inescapably requires the responsible stewardship of wildlife such as fish and reptiles, plants (because so many medicines and other products, like food, are plant based), and timber, which provides shelter and fuel.  It also requires the help of wildlife to maintain forests through seed dispersal, pest control, and the alteration of landscapes and maintenance of wildlife corridors.    

World Wildlife Day – Getting the Word Out

The United Nations General Assembly has been an advocate for conservation for many years, and established World Wildlife Day in 2013 as a way to bring attention to the importance of biodiversity. On the occasion of the Day in 2020, the World Wildlife Federation compiled six good reasons to care about wildlife conservation, which include

  • Protecting against Climate Change.    Grazing wildlife can minimize the severity of forest fires, by limiting fuel for their spread.  Also, wildlife provides health maintenance for forests by dispersing seeds, limiting potentially damaging insects, and clearing space for germinating trees.  
  • Wildlife is a critical food source in many parts of the world.  In tropical countries, especially, people rely on medium to large mammals, birds and reptiles for protein – millions of tons of meat per year.  Losing these critical sources of nutrition would cause an alarming increase in at the least childhood anemia, and at worst starvation.
  • Chemicals from plants and especially amphibians are crucial to modern pharmaceuticals.  More and more, medications are being developed to treat things like high blood pressure, depression, stroke, and even memory loss – and all using compounds from plants and especially frogs!  Even sheep’s wool offers us vitamin D3 and of course lanolin.  
  • Significance to cultures around the world.   Not as easily quantifiable as some of the other reasons,  our connection to wildlife and wild places has supported our mental, physical, and in some cases spiritual well being as long as humans have inhabited the planet.  Studies now verify the health benefits of being in nature and interacting with animals, even just being in the presence of wildlife.  The most studied effects include the reduction of cortisol levels (it’s the stress hormone) and also the lowering of heart rate and blood pressure – in other words, the attainment of tranquility in our increasingly urbanized world.
  • Improving soil health and fertility.  While it’s not as pleasant to imagine as nature’s tranquility, the digestion and redistribution of plant materials provided by wildlife in natural environments provided nutrients to the soils and even the waters of their habitats, allowing biodiversity to flourish. 
  • Maintaining ecological health and keeping wildlife corridors open.  Large species classified as “Keystone species,” like elephants, alligators, rhinos, and one you may not have heard of, the Bison bonasus, a species of bison living in the Carpathian Mountains, and who are the largest land mammals in Europe, specialize in altering the landscapes where they live in ways beneficial to other species.   Their size and strength and natural inclinations also allow them to take the lead in creating wildlife corridors, ways for many species to migrate in search of food or water.

Government agencies, conservation organizations, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, The United Nations, and countless individuals are on a mission to preserve the amazing biodiversity of our planet, which inspires a great deal of hope and optimism.     If you love animals, the mission becomes more personal to you – but even if you only value humans, it’s clear that our lives are immeasurably enhanced by efforts to preserve the natural world.   

So join in with a greater good – and as a start, stop into the Reid Park Zoo, check out the conservation and climate change initiatives that are everywhere on the grounds, and most of all, connect with the animals!   You’ll be glad you did; and quite possibly,  you’ll realize you can’t wait for the Reid Park Zoo expansion!  In the Pathway to Asia, you’ll be able to connect with even more species who need our advocacy.  And gain some great memories at the same time.

The word menagerie comes to us from the French, and it originally meant something like the “management of a household” which probably included caring for livestock. However, by the time English speakers began to use the word, it had a very different meaning – it referred to places where trained animals performed for the public (not a pleasant idea to us with our modern sensibilities). So a circus? A dancing bear in a cage?

A collection for the select few

Actually, menageries as we now call them date as far back as 3500BC in Egypt. Exotic animals made up showy collections of the royal and the very rich all over the world. These animals were often given as ostentatious gifts from one member of the elite to another, and were clear symbols of status and power. Wealthy owners assigned numerous servants to care for these exotic creatures, and some even good-heartedly tried to create “paradises”for their new menageries to live in. Only a select few got to even see these animals. But as you might imagine, the unfortunate animals’ life spans were greatly truncated, since they had been removed from native habitats and then confined by humans without any knowledge of their diets, habits, or needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some Roman emperors, like the notorious Caligula, put on spectacles where gladiators would fight lions, bears, tigers, and other animals deemed sufficiently vicious, to the death.

Well, maybe the “peasants” would like to get a look at the animals

Eventually, in the 16th century, exotic animals in captivity became accessible for public viewing, in such locations as the Tower of London, and across the globe in the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s “House of Animals.” By the late 18th century, in Paris, and as a result of the French Revolution, the Menagerie du Jardin de Plantes opened to the public, comprising fourteen acres of animal cages inside a botanical garden. People were now beginning to take an interest in the biology and habits of wild animals, if not yet in their well-being, so these early “zoos” attracted scientists and scholars. But of course they had no opportunity to see animals exhibit natural behaviors.

Things changing for the better

A pretty dreadful history so far! But in the U.S. in the 19th century, things were looking up at the Smithsonian Institution, where a taxidermist named William Temple Hornaday took a trip west, hoping to see the millions of Bison he had heard about – but there were only a few hundred left. In his distress, he immediately began to think about conservation, establishing the “Department of Living Animals” at the Smithsonian. From this humble beginning came today’s National Zoo, a leader in conservation, animal research, and breeding of endangered species.

In other parts of the world, zoo administrators were also beginning to adopt a more humane attitude toward the animals in their care. Today, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (and also the International Association of Zoos and Aquariums) regulates the requirements for habitat, exhibition and welfare of the animals in the Zoos they accredit. AZA-accredited zoos (such as the Reid Park Zoo) have a clear commitment to animal welfare, and an overarching mission to support species and habitat conservation. This support is even more crucial as we all confront the changing climate.

Did you know animals at the Reid Park Zoo are always able to choose whether they’d like to be in public view or not? Did you know they are closely monitored every day to check on their physical and mental/emotional health, both of which manifest in observable behaviors? That their habitats have been carefully designed to invoke natural behaviors? And that the keepers strive continuously to provide feeding conditions similar to those in the wild? Did you know that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will allow large and beautiful naturalistic habitats for many more endangered species?

A far cry from a menagerie, we think you’ll agree. How lucky we are that now we can go to a reputable Zoo and be inspired by species that might not be long with us in the wild. Or maybe, that zoo you’re visiting will be the one to play a central role in a repopulation effort! You can see animals well treated and behaving naturally, and you will be helping them just by visiting. Nigel Rothfels, the author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, writes, “It seems to me that we are almost hardwired to desire to have this kind of close engagement with animals.” There is a beautiful place for all of us to learn and get a connection to the amazing natural world, right in the heart of Tucson. Visit the Reid Park Zoo – it will do YOU good to be a part of all the good that’s being done for the animals there!

African Wild Dogs are one of the newest additions to the Reid Park Zoo. If you haven’t seen them yet, they’re easy to find – just to the left of the main plaza as you enter the zoo, and they’re always fun to watch! 

Rover’s relatives

These animals are also known as “painted dogs,” and their striking coloration tells you why. Their short fur has a beautiful patchwork of brown, white, red, black, and yellow splotches. Each dog has its own unique pattern, like the stripes on a zebra – a sort of “fingerprint.” They’re slender and about the size of larger domestic dogs – weight, 40-75 pounds; height, 2 to 3 ½ feet; length, 2 ½ to 4 feet. Males and females are similar in size. Their large, rounded ears give them sharp hearing and also help them radiate heat to stay cool in hot climates (the way elephants’ ears do). 

African wild dogs are related to your pet dog, if you have one, and to jackals, coyotes, and wolves. They’re often confused with hyenas, but wild dogs and hyenas are not very close on the phylogenetic tree. Wild dogs are closer to wolves and domestic dogs, while hyenas are actually closer to cats and mongooses than to dogs. 

African wild dogs are found in fragmented areas of grassland, savannah, and open woodland of the sub-Sahara, mostly in southern Africa and southern portions of east Africa. The  social structure and social interactions of these beautiful canines are unusual among carnivores. A pack of wild dogs usually numbers 5-20 animals. A pack typically has both females and males, and the females and males have separate dominance hierarchies. The alpha (dominant) female and the alpha male stay together as a breeding pair, usually monogamous, and this alpha pair normally are the only animals in the pack to breed. Packs wander a lot in the wild, rarely staying in one place for more than a couple of days. 

It’s not allergies!

Members of a pack communicate with each other by touch, “sneezing,” and quiet, chirpy vocalizations. African wild dogs show greater cooperation with others in their pack than almost any other social mammal, showing each other what has been described as “a deliberative kindness bordering on altruism.” As in lion prides, for example, wild dog cubs are cared for by the entire pack. They also share food: after a hunt, the hunters regurgitate meat from the hunt to feed pups, sick or old animals, and any others who did not participate in that hunt. And when young animals first join in hunting, the mature animals allow them to feed first. 

Masters of pack hunting

Wild dogs are very efficient, cooperative hunters, which is why they’re also known as “hunting dogs.” About 80% of their hunts end with them getting their prey, compared with only about 30% success for lion hunts. Wild dogs can run for miles at 35 miles an hour! They base their hunting strategy on this unusual combination of speed and stamina, simply chasing their intended prey until the prey can run no longer. They usually hunt antelopes, but sometimes go after larger animals like wildebeest or zebras. Near human settlements, wild dogs sometimes prey on livestock, which causes conflict with farmers. Unlike hyenas, wild dogs rarely scavenge. 

Members of a pack usually hunt at dawn and at dusk. Wildlife biologists have discovered, though, that the decision about whether and exactly when to undertake a hunt is made by group vote – where a “sneeze” is a vote! – not solely by the alpha male or female in the pack. This is another aspect of this species’ social behavior that is different from other carnivores. 

Lots of mouths to feed

The alpha pair in a pack usually mate about once a year, most often between March and June. An average litter has 10-12 pups, but they can have up to 21! In contrast to elephants, lions, and other social species, as wild dogs mature, the males usually stay with their birth pack, and it is the females that usually strike out on their own when they grow up. Wild dogs live for about 10 years in the wild and 2-3 years longer under human care in zoos. 

Grommie and her sisters

The Reid Park Zoo’s all-female pack of four sibling African wild dogs arrived from the Oregon Zoo in November, 2020, when they were two years old. The four sisters are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.   That means that if a genetically appropriate female is needed for breeding, one of the sisters may travel to another accredited zoo and it’s hoped, have one of those huge litters of painted pups!

The Reid Park Zoo packs at first seem identical, but they definitely have separate personalities and even looks.   And names:   Grommie (short for Grommet), Cricket, Terra (short for Terracotta), and Sandy. It’s a fun challenge to try to tell them apart based on their coloring. Here are some hints to help you. Grommie is dark overall, with a white “U”-shaped mark on her right rear leg and a large white tip on her tail. Cricket has a small, round white patch on the top of her rump and a large white tip on her tail. Sandy has little white overall and only a small bit of white on the tip of her tail, but you might get to see a white “smiley face” marking on her chest. Terra is paler overall and has a large white tip on her tail and a “C”-shaped white mark on the left side of her chest. Got that? Grommie seemed to be the alpha dog when they first arrived at RPZ, but the four regularly test and re-order the dominance hierarchy among themselves. When you visit them in the zoo, see if you can tell which one is dominant. 

Survival is not a given

Predators are essential for maintaining a healthy balance among different animal species in a habitat. African wild dogs, a key predator in their habitat, are the second-most endangered carnivore in Africa, after the Ethiopian Wolf. Estimates of the total number in the wild range from about 7,000 down to only 1,400, but everyone agrees that their numbers are very low. In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified them as Endangered, just two short steps from Extinct in the Wild. 

Habitat loss and diseases such as distemper, rabies, and parvovirus carried by domestic dogs jeopardize the remaining wild dog populations. Fragmentation of their habitat causes isolation of small subpopulations of animals, and the resulting inbreeding weakens the species and their chances for survival; the largest subpopulation of wild dogs now consists of fewer than 250 animals. The Reid Park Zoo, the World Wildlife Fund, and other organizations are working to save African wild dogs by mitigating conflict with people and livestock and by creating wildlife corridors to connected parts of their fragmented habitat in Africa.  

By the way, if you visited the Reid Park Zoo before 2020, you might recognize the African wild dogs’ habitat as the former home for the Zoo’s tigers. The Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion will have a new, much larger tiger habitat that will allow the Reid Park Zoo to welcome a young breeding pair of tigers, which are only ONE step away from being classified as “Extinct in the Wild.”  The difficult but rewarding work of helping to save these species belongs to all of us!

Macaws, which come in many varieties, are some of the most brightly colored and beautiful birds on earth. They are also intelligent, sociable, curious, playful and resourceful. Unfortunately, this makes them very popular as pets, and the pet trade now endangers their populations in the wild.

But how easily do you think they can camouflage themselves to hide from their main predators, snakes and raptors? Very well, it turns out! Macaws live in rainforests, and they tend to spend their days looking for food and eating it, very efficiently. Their preferred diet is fruit, and in the rainforest tree canopy, many of those fruits are just as brightly colored as the macaws who love to consume them.    

Many of the fruits are toxic to humans, by the way, and also, very difficult to bite into, but the macaw is perfectly adapted to this task. They have extremely strong beaks, which not only can penetrate the toughest skin on a piece of fruit, but can also behave like a sort of extra foot at the birds move around high in the tree branches. In addition, the macaw’s tongue, which is dry and scaly, actually has a bone inside which also helps them crush even the toughest pits and seeds inside the fruit they love.

Of course, fruit isn’t all they eat – because, as we all know, eating too much fruit can be hard on the stomach, and besides, we all crave variety in our diets sometimes. So they will also consume snails, insects, and nuts. The Blue and Yellow Macaw (like Rainbow, who lives in the Reid Park Zoo) has been observed eating up to 20 different species of plants! But back to all that fruit. Macaws have a unique dietary habit which is not fully understood by scientists – they frequently eat damp clay or mud. It’s thought this mud is a sort of Pepto Bismol for their digestive systems, and may also guard against some of the known toxins they consume.

Macaws mate for life, and though they may live in larger groups (generally 10 – 30), a mating pair always stays close to one another, even while flying within the flock to find food. They share food with their mates, and also groom one another. These are some long relationships, because macaws in the wild and in human care can live up to 60 years! Females generally lay 2-3 eggs once a year, and the hatchlings are quite helpless, totally dependent on both parents to protect them and provide food. In the world of macaw chicks, the squeaking wheel (or screeching baby macaw) is the one who gets the majority of the food, and may end up being the only one in the nest to live to maturity. They learn to fly at about three months.

Some species of macaw (there are 17 known) are now endangered and some, like the Blue and Yellow Macaw we can see in the Reid Park Zoo, are considered “extirpated” from certain native habitats like Trinidad. But reintroduction efforts have been modestly successful, and small breeding populations exist in Puerto Rico and in Florida. What has caused the reduction of numbers of these iconic birds in the wild? Well, as with almost every species on earth, habitat loss and climate change are putting the macaws at greater risk. But the pet trade is a bigger culprit.

The Macaw’s beauty and intelligence is greatly admired by humans, who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for one chick. These amazing birds are able to problem solve, learn to talk (and have even been observed practicing human speech), and of course their dramatic plumage and gregarious personalities make them extremely desirable as pets.   But there are several downsides. They need a great deal of room, and their long median lifespan makes owning one a lifetime commitment. They joyfully screech and squawk at an amazing volume, which might be fine in the rainforest, but might be overwhelming inside a house.  

Many organizations such as the Macaw Recovery Network are now working to protect the macaw. Some try to pay locals to stop poaching the animals, and surprisingly, ecotourism may prove to be an effective strategy to protect the macaws. Conservationists are starting to build lodges to attract visitors to see large flocks in the wild. The most wonderful aspect of this is that these lodges can employ locals who formerly made a living trapping the macaws; they are now earning a living as expert tour guides. It’s truly a win-win!  

Rainbow, the Blue and Yellow Macaw at the Reid Park Zoo, hopes that you will support Macaw conservation by stopping by to admire his striking feathers and have a little squawk. He’d also like you to know that one of his favorite distant cousins, the Ring-necked parakeet, will be coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

The mystery,  beauty and ferocity of the Jaguar has always had a central role in the culture of many South and Central American societies; the name Jaguar probably comes from the languages of the Guarani and Tupi people, whose term yaguarete  is translated as, “true, fierce beast.” In fact, jaguars were considered gods in many ancient cultures in Mexico, Central America and South America, including the Mayans and Olmecs. The big cats’ images appear prominently in the art of architecture of these and other pre-Columbian cultures. Even today, among indigenous peoples, the Jaguar maintains a symbolic and spiritual importance as a protector of other species as well as a creature able to travel not only on the earthly plain, but into spiritual realms.

Here and Now

The fascination with these beautiful animals also extends to us here in Southern Arizona, where a Jaguar sighting in the Santa Rita Mountains brings great hope and excitement about the species.  Jaguar populations are decreasing, and they are currently classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).  However, in the U.S., the Fish and Wildlife Service has designated them as endangered.  

 At one time, jaguars roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon, but unfortunately, since 1996, carefully-placed trail cameras have only been able to capture images of seven male Jaguars on this side of the U.S.- Mexico border.    Researchers know of a breeding population in the state of Sonora, Mexico and in fact, at least one of the males that has been documented in Arizona has been also seen in Mexico.   How do the scientists know this?   Because like many big cats, individual Jaguars have distinctive patterns on their gorgeous coats!

Those are some big cats

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, right behind lions and tigers.  That makes them the largest cats in the Americas, even bigger than mountain lions.  An adult male jaguar can grow up to six feet long with another three feet of tail, and weigh up to 250 pounds.   Females are about 20% smaller. And in the wild, Jaguars can live in different areas – some in tropical forests, and others in savannas and grasslands, as long as there are water sources nearby.  The individuals in the forests tend to be a little smaller than their relatives who prowl open spaces.    Jaguars are powerful swimmers and have even been seen easily traversing the Panama Canal .     They are also talented at climbing and leaping, both important to their style of hunting.  

They’re not the same 

It’s easy to confuse Jaguars with Leopards, but never in the wild, because jaguars only live in the Americas, and leopards come to us from Africa and Asia.  Jaguars are larger than leopards, and though their coats appear similar, with dramatic black rosette patterns on a yellowish-brown background, the rosettes on a jaguar have unique dot patterns inside their rosettes (leopards don’t).  Jaguars are also heavier set than Leopards, with wider jaws and shorter legs than their African and Asian cousins.    Both species sometimes produce dramatic melanistic individuals, in which both the background color and the rosettes are black – that’s where the term “black panther” comes from.

Fierce Hunters

Jaguars are most active at dawn and dusk.   They are solitary in the wild (except for a brief time during breeding, or when the females are caring for the young), and the imperative of a typical day is hunting.     The big cats are carnivores, all the way, and prefer to eat large species, like tapir, deer, peccaries and even large turtles and caiman.     However, when it’s necessary, they’ll also prey on smaller animals and fish – about 85 different species altogether.  Whatever’s on the menu, the jaguar is an ambush predator.  An alpha, too, in its native habitat.  

 Their large eyes are not only strikingly beautiful, their amazing visual acuity allows the jaguar to spot prey at a great distance and in low light.  Jaguars have large, wide paws which are capable of moving swiftly but silently in service of a stealth attack.  And what an attack – at least it’s mercifully quick!     The jaguar’s powerful jaws and imposing canine teeth enable very efficient hunting techniques – one pounce, and the jaguar can easily crack the skull of its prey with just one bite.  The leathery skins of the larger river creatures are also no match for the jaguar’s ferocity, so most prey animals never know what hit them.

Cubs!  Not that many, and not that often

Jaguars briefly give up their solitary lifestyles in service of breeding season, which can really be any time of year.   Females breed every two years, and the gestation period for a female (who is perfectly cheerful about having been completely abandoned by her mate) is roughly 100 days.  A typical litter numbers 2-4, and the newborn cubs are completely dependent on the mother’s care: their eyes open at about 2 weeks old, and they generally nurse for five to six months.   The mother will continue to feed, protect, and teach them how to hunt until they’re about two years old.   A female cub will already be able to reproduce by the time she’s one, but males generally need to be at least 2-3 years old.   

Wait!  They each need their own territory??

So, imagine those cubs leaving home at age two to begin adult life – and imagine that each jaguar wants to be solitary – that’s a lot of space!   The decrease in numbers of jaguars is largely due to the increase in human usage of their ancestral habitats for agriculture and grazing – and jaguars have now been eradicated from 40% of their original ranges, from here all the way down to Argentina.     Unfortunately, though the jaguar is now a protected species, there is a demand in some Asian countries for the jaguar’s teeth and claws, and this is further driving illegal poaching in their remaining habitats.  Many experts expect that the IUCN will soon be downgrading the jaguar’s status to “vulnerable” – the step just below endangered in the wild.   And remember, the jaguar is already endangered in the U.S.   

Locally, those who hope that the jaguars coming across the border might someday establish a breeding population here are also concerned about human encroachment, water shortages, and the border fence blocking corridors for both the jaguar and its prey animals.  The survival of this species, like so many others, is dependent upon a complicated balance of human need, conservation initiatives, and politics.  The Reid Park Zoo is happy for you to come and see Tucson’s own “true, fierce beast” Bella, a 12-year-old female jaguar who can climb, swim, hide, pounce, and dash around her habitat in the South America Loop.    You can also learn about what you can do to protect jaguars in the wild, and you’ll want to once you’ve looked into those amazing eyes.

 And please make a future plan to visit all the other amazing endangered species they will have, and help, in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

Giraffes tower over the plains of Africa, the tallest land animals on earth, gentle giants, the watchtowers of the savannah, beautiful to behold. They are awkward but strangely graceful. And their striking appearance is matched by striking adaptations in their anatomy and physiology. 

Giraffes are known for their long necks and long, spindly legs. Adult male giraffes are about 16-17 feet tall – way higher than a basketball hoop! – and weigh about 2600 pounds – as much as a small car! Females are about 2 feet shorter and about 800 pounds lighter than the males. Both males and females have irregularly spotted coats, short, brown manes on their necks, hooves on their feet, and long, black hairs at the ends of their tails. 

Horn-like protuberances on the tops of their heads, called ossicones, are relatively soft when the giraffe is born, but turn to bone and fuse to the skull as the animal ages. Ossicones are more prominent in males. And giraffes have very large eyes and very good eyesight for scanning the savannah for predators. 

Giraffes come from Africa, where they live in habitats ranging from open plains to dense forest. Because their natural habitat is threatened, wild giraffes now live in protected reserves, largely in the eastern and southern regions of the continent. 

Giraffes browse on a variety of plants, but their favorite is the acacia tree, which they happily gobble up, 3-inch thorns and all! How do they avoid injuring themselves with those thorns? Giraffes’ tongues are very long – up to 21 inches – and maneuverable, and they often use their tongues to pluck the acacia’s leaves away from the thorns. When they do eat the thorns, their tongues and mouths are protected by a very thick layer of saliva. If you participate in a giraffe feeding at a zoo – such as the Giraffe Encounter at the Reid Park Zoo – you might get to feel a bit of a giraffe’s saliva for yourself! 

Giraffes get most of the water they need from their food, but they do sometimes drink from waterholes. A giraffe’s neck can’t reach the ground while the animal is standing up, so to drink water, the giraffe spreads its front legs very far apart to lower the front of its body. That stance lets the giraffe’s tongue reach the water alright, but it leaves the giraffe vulnerable to predators, so it’s a good thing giraffes can go a long time between drinks! 

Giraffes have evolved amazing adaptations to accommodate their long necks and legs. A giraffe’s heart has to pump out blood at very high pressure to get the blood up that long neck to the giraffe’s brain – a pressure that would be dangerous in humans. Giraffes have special genes that protect them from the organ damage that their high blood pressure otherwise would cause. They also have very tight, tough sheaths, like compression stockings, that wrap around the legs and help them to avoid another effect of high blood pressure, swelling in the feet and legs. Giraffes also have special features in the arteries and veins in their necks that prevent too much blood from rushing to their heads when they bend down to drink and too much blood draining out of their brains and making them lightheaded when they raise their heads again. 

The neck bones, or vertebrae, in giraffes are amazing, too. You might think that giraffes’ necks, being so long, would have a lot more vertebrae than humans’. Not so! A giraffe has 7 neck vertebrae, the same number as us. An amazing difference, though, is in the height of those vertebrae – each giraffe vertebra is about 10 inches tall – about 10 times the height of a vertebra in you or me. You might get to see a model of a giraffe vertebra when you visit the Reid Park Zoo. 

Giraffes are social, but not territorial. They live in groups of a few animals to several dozen. The groups include both males and females, unlike some other social animals, such as lions. The membership of the group changes constantly as individual animals join and leave it. A group of giraffes can be called a herd, as for other animals, but do you know the special name that’s used just for a group of giraffes? A tower! What a good word for the tallest animals on earth!  

Because of their size and their ability to deliver lethal kicks, giraffes have few natural predators – mainly lions, hyenas, and wild dogs. In fact, a tower of giraffes, scanning the savannah with their amazing visual abilities, often provide a safe grazing area for smaller animals, since the giraffes will spy predators first and alert immediately.  Giraffes are vulnerable to predators when they sleep, so they spend little time sleeping, often just 20 minutes a day! When they do sleep, they usually tuck their feet under them and rest their head on their hindquarters, but they can also sleep standing up for short periods. 

Giraffes are “precocial” – a newborn calf is much more mature than a lion cub or a human baby. Giraffe calves are about 6 feet tall and 150 pounds at birth, and newborn giraffes can stand up and walk within an hour. Calves usually nurse for about a year. Giraffes live for 10-15 years in the wild, and over 30 years in human care in zoos. 

The Reid Park Zoo has been home to wonderful giraffes over the years, and the giraffes are a favorite stop for Zoo visitors. Four giraffes currently live at the Zoo. Denver is a female and the oldest of the tower at 32 years. In fact, Denver is the second-oldest giraffe in the country! Jasiri, a male, is next oldest and in his prime at 10 years. And the Zoo welcomed two youngsters to its giraffe tower in the fall of 2020. Penelope, a female, is 2 ½ years old and was 11 ½ feet tall on her second birthday! Sota, a male named for his home state of Minnesota, is about a year younger than Penelope, and he was already over 10 feet tall on his first birthday!   These towering creatures will probably be very interested to see everything – and they’re probably the only ones in the Zoo who can – happening with the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

Humans are the major threat to the survival of the giraffe species, because of hunting and because of loss of the giraffes’ natural habitat to human development and climate change. The number of wild giraffes has dropped about 40% in the past 30-40 years, to fewer than 100,000 animals. The IUCN classifies giraffes overall as Vulnerable, but two of the four identified species of giraffe, Reticulated (the giraffes at the Reid Park Zoo) and Masai Giraffes, are classified as Endangered. Members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, such as the Reid Park Zoo, help to fight the loss of giraffes through the Giraffe through the SAFE program.  

A last fun fact: World Giraffe Day comes every year on June 21st – it’s on the longest day of the year, to honor the earth’s tallest animal! How about visiting the Zoo to wish the tower a Happy World Giraffe Day?