Almost Gone

The pair of Malayan Tigers expected to come to Tucson once the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete will be some of the most stunningly beautiful, most beloved, and most endangered creatures on the planet. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has honored our Zoo by selecting them to receive a breeding pair of these amazing animals. The male and female will live in lush adjoining habitats, with plenty of room to climb, to swim, to hide, to stalk, and loll about. Tigers are solitary in the wild, so the pair will meet only during breeding season, and there are high hopes that they will be able to increase the population of their species. And imagine seeing a litter of 2-5 tiger cubs frolicking right here in Tucson, complete with fearsome itty-bitty growling and amazing mini-pouncing! 

This is crucial, since there are only an estimated 250-340 Malayan Tigers left in the wild, and of those, only 80-120 are breeding adults. If humans don’t act now to save them they will join the three tiger subspecies already lost to extinction:  the Bali Tiger, the Caspian Tiger, and the Javan Tiger. The Malayan Tiger is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, along with its cousins the Sumatran Tiger and the South China Tiger, already believed to be extinct in the wild. The status of tigers in the wild is heartbreaking – but more about that later.

They’re small, for tigers

Tigers are the largest species of cat in the world – bigger even than lions. The Malayan Tiger is one of the smallest subspecies of mainland tiger, practically puny as tigers go!  Males are a mere 8 feet long from nose to tail, and weigh only about 250 – 300 pounds. The females are positively dainty – only 7 feet long altogether, and weigh in at a supermodel-slim 170-240 pounds. Compare this to the Siberian Tiger, also called the Amur Tiger, which measures up to 10.5 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds.  

Nonetheless, being in the presence of a Malayan Tiger (they seem plenty big compared to us) is an unforgettable and humbling experience. As in all species of tiger, each individual has a unique stripe pattern, which assists researchers in determining their numbers in the wild.  Without this fur, it might be very difficult to distinguish a tiger from a lion, its closest relative. Tigers have strong jaws, sharp teeth, and a muscular build. They are excellent at climbing and swimming (they have partially webbed toes), a favorite pastime at the Reid Park Zoo, especially in the summer heat. In the wild, a Malayan Tiger will not hesitate to cross even a rapidly flowing river in order to pursue its prey.

As for hunting, their large eyes give them excellent vision for this typically nocturnal activity. Malayan Tigers are obligate carnivores and favorite prey includes Muntjac and other deer, wild boar and bearded pigs, and tapir.  The tigers are ambush predators, relying on camouflage, stealth, distance, and patience to locate and subdue their prey. If necessary, they may also pursue very young offspring of much larger animals such as elephants, rhinos, or bears. Though solitary, the tigers are known to hunt in groups when this is advantageous. A Malayan Tiger may make a kill once every three or four days, and tries to eat as much of its prey as possible in one meal.   

Bring on the cubs!

Since male and female Malayan Tigers only meet and “socialize” during breeding season, a female in estrus starts to mark trees with urine and initiates a series of loud calls to signal her receptiveness to a male. It’s definitely a short-term relationship, however; the male will impregnate the female, then go his separate way. After a 3-4 month gestation period, a litter(2 to 5) of extremely helpless cubs will be born and  cared for by their mother for the next 18 months to two years.       

During that time, the frisky cubs practice all their tiger skills, chasing, pouncing, wrestling, and most importantly, growling as ferociously as possible the whole time! They also like to ambush each other and their poor tired mother, who must leave them alone while she hunts. Unfortunately,  only about half of the tiger cubs born in the wild survive their first year, because like the young of all species, they are vulnerable to predators, especially when the mother isn’t present, and are also susceptible to disease and accidents in the forests and jungles where they grow up. All other things being equal, this high level of infant mortality for the Malayan Tiger cubs would not contribute to the reduction of numbers for the species, but all things are NOT equal, not at all.

Enter the humans

First of all, tigers are apex predators, and have no natural enemies in the animal kingdom. Humans are entirely responsible for their dramatic decline in the wild. It’s about habitat. Panthera, an organization working on the conservation of big cats, reports that tiger habitat worldwide has declined 96% – and 40% of that decline has been in just the past decade.  

Where has all that territory gone? Well, in Southeast Asia, where the Malayan Tigers live in dense tropical forests, more than 18,000 square miles of forest was lost to monoculture plantations for the production of palm oil, just between 2000 – 2012. The conversion of forest to plantation and agricultural land not only affects the tigers, it affects biodiversity in the region, creating shortage of prey animals all the way down to the smallest insect. 

But perhaps more disturbing is the illegal wildlife trade, which has been especially damaging to Malayan Tigers. The tigers are prized by trophy hunters (though this is illegal in Malaysia) and tigers are often poached to obtain ingredients for traditional medicines in Asia. They are also hunted for “décor” items.

But we’re waking up

Fortunately, advocacy organizations around the world are feeling the urgency and stepping up their efforts toward the conservation of tigers in the wild. Tigers once numbered around 100,000 in the wilds of Asia, but today researchers estimate only about 3,900 remain. Zoos around the world, just like the Reid Park Zoo, are working hard to preserve the species. Governments are cracking down on poaching, and NGOs are providing human resources to patrol and protect tiger habitats, as well as establishing preserves for the tigers and all the animals that naturally flourish in the same territories. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Federation (WWF)  are working with communities who live in proximity to tigers to not only farm and eat in ways that may mitigate climate change, but to better protect livestock so as to limit conflict between humans and tigers. Also, members of these communities are now finding employment through ecotourism rather than poaching.

It remains to be seen if we are in time to save the remaining six subspecies of tigers on earth. But we can help – for example, we can learn about palm oil, an ingredient used in many of the products we rely on and purchase daily. Sustainably produced palm oil is part of the deforestation solution – and organizations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) offers an app you can use in the grocery store to guide your purchases!  You can also plan to visit and support zoos, like the Reid Park Zoo, who will be participating in a breeding program for Malayan Tigers. Part of having these critically endangered creatures is a commitment to financially support in-situ conservation efforts, and also to spread the word about the plight of tigers and how we can help. So be a part of the solution and come to the Pathway to Asia at the Reid Park Zoo, as soon as it’s complete. As a bonus, you’ll be in the presence of breathtaking Malayan Tigers, and if we’re lucky, you may get to see some incredibly cute little ones stalking and pouncing!   

Meerkats:  Adorable, Unruly, and Scrappy

When somebody mentions Meerkats, you probably picture something like a fuzzy little humanoid standing at attention in order to guard the mob (which is an apt name for a group of these little guys). Or maybe you’re a Meerkat enthusiast, and you’ve seen some documentaries, so you picture them fearlessly subduing scorpions and gleefully crunching them up. Maybe you’ve experienced great anxiety as you watched a brave little Meerkat confront a cobra – and prevail!  Amazing! Don’t worry, this almost never actually happens in the wild. And really, scorpions make up only about 2% of their diets, so the subduing and crunching doesn’t happen often either.    

Foraging and eating

But anyhow, do they share those giant scorpions or cobra bites with their Meerkat families and friends? No! It’s every Meerkat for him or herself. Each individual spends a lot of time foraging daily for insects, like termites and grubs, but once they find them, become very possessive of their own food and  are ready and willing to fight other Meerkats to defend their little feasts.   

Their culinary manners aren’t totally heartless – whenever they are foraging, one member of the mob, usually a dominant male or female, will stand guard on the highest ground around to alert the others to danger. That means the sentinel isn’t getting any food for herself.

They can really communicate

Meerkats have at least  10 distinct vocalizations, and research suggests that members of the mob can understand specific messages and even recognize which individual is calling. After 20 years of research  in the Kalahari Desert, one of the Meerkats’ native habitats in southern Africa, researchers figured out that sentinels used two different calls to indicate a threat – one for something creeping up on land,  and a different one for something dangerous flying above.

What about the group dynamics?

Their mobs generally include from 10 – 40 individuals, often comprising three families that get along well. “Get along” is a relative term, though – these relatives of the Mongoose can be quick to attack other members of the group, particularly if the matter  involves food, and especially when a dominant female feels somehow offended.

But like that big, loud, family you know that always seems to be yelling and arguing (but still love each other), the Meerkats are capable of coming together very effectively when the group is threatened – for example,  banding together and hissing to scare off a jackal or caracal, or even another mob that has come a little too close.  

At the Reid Park Zoo

The Meerkat mob at The Reid Park Zoo, has grown considerably since 5 of them arrived in 2017 and 2018 from other U.S. Zoos.  They dig, bask, perform guard duty, run around, hunt for treats, squabble, and curiously watch the humans during the day.  Every evening, they scurry obligingly into the night house around dusk, a very sensible cooperative endeavor by the group.  They seem to realize that once they’re safe and warm inside, the hawks and other birds of prey that fly in from the Park every night can’t make a meal of them!

Born for the Night Shift

As our group entered the cave-like area from bright summer sunlight, I stumbled slightly, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimming light. Without any prompting, our laughter dissolved into cautious whispers. The glass panel we faced was slightly obscured by condensation—on our side, a cool summer breeze, on the other, a moist tropical atmosphere. There they were, hanging upside down, like furry brown birds in long trench coats, nibbling on pieces of nectarine and mango: my first glimpse of Rodrigues Fruit Bats, up close and personal. I was mesmerized. No, enraptured.  

It was like peering into another universe. Our group watched in silence as the bats walked upside down on the wire-mesh ceiling, foraged for fruit, chased one another, squabbled, and then rested together. More secluded spaces housed mother bats, nursing their single offspring upside down, pups clinging to their mothers’ armpits. It was a topsy-turvy universe, disorienting but exhilarating, and easily the most memorable part of my visit to the African rainforest habitat in Portland’s Oregon Zoo.  

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought much about bats. They are night dwellers, invisible, secretive, and maybe a little scary. I’d seen them before in caves, high up and hanging by the merest foothold along some rocky crevice. As a daytime dweller, birds, not bats, defined my encounters with nature. That all changed after meeting the Rodrigues bats on a warm summer day, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that a colony of fruit bats would be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo expansion, The Pathway to Asia

Wildlife professionals who work on behalf of these amazing animals will tell you that bats are under-appreciated and greatly misunderstood. Let’s get right down to basic bat facts.

Bats 101

There are so many bats! We may rarely see them, but there are more than 1,400 species of bats living in nearly every part of the world, except for the harshest desert and polar regions. These small mammals range in size from the Bumblebee bat, which weighs less than a penny, to the largest fruit bats, which have wingspans of up to 5 ½ feet. 

Humans rely heavily on birds, bats, and other animals to help keep our planet livable, some would say survivable. With birds working during the daylight hours and bats working the nightshift, nature provides us with round the clock pest control. Some scientists believe that bats’ preference for the night shift evolved as a way to avoid predation, mainly from birds, and has enabled them to share the same food source without confrontation or competition. Although all bats eats insects, and many do so exclusively, some have evolved to become fruit and nectar specialists providing another important ecological service—pollination!

Bats can be divided into two primary groups, Microbats and Megabats. As their names imply, Microbats have smaller bodies but larger ears which help them use their superpower, echolocation, a useful adaptation which helps them find food in the dark (insects) and avoid obstacles in the process. Micros are primarily insectivores, and their role is pest control. At the other end of the spectrum, Megabats have larger bodies, larger eyes with keen vision, and a great sense of smell. These sensory superpowers help them find their food (fruits and flowers). Megas have evolved as frugivores and nectarivores, and their role is pollination. Depending on where they live and their ecological role, bats can thrive in caves, rock shelters, and high-altitude mountainous ranges, but they also thrive in tropical forests, roost in trees, and one species even burrows in the ground (for all you bat fans, the North Island of New Zealand). In urban areas, they find man-made crevices to call home: attics, eaves, barns, industrial-sized buildings, tunnels, and bridges. Bats can live solitary or social lives. Some prefer to live alone or in pairs, some in small- to medium-sized harem groups (a dominant male with many females and a few immature males close by), and some in small to massive colonies. 

How massive? Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, Texas, is home to about 20 million Mexican Free-Tailed Bats who roost there, giving birth and raising pups, from March to September. This is the largest known bat colony in the world, although this number may not be entirely accurate because bats are difficult to count. 500 babies can huddle to keep warm by hanging onto one square foot of rock ceiling. How’s that for efficient use of space? The Bracken Cave colony is well-protected by Bat Conservation International, an international, non-governmental agency, and The Nature Conservancy. The city of San Antonio also enforces no-development and dark-sky regulations to protect their cave and the land surrounding it. 


Bats in the desert

Moving west, Arizona has the second largest number of bat species (28) in the U.S. , second only to Texas. The Mexican Free-tailed Bats of Bracken Cave fame are common in Tucson and have found handy urban homes under large bridges over the Pantano Wash and the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers. You can observe them—from a polite distance, please—flying out from underneath their bridge-caves at dusk . They mingle with other local bat species and share the ecological work; some are insectivores while others work as nectarivores.

While many Tucson residents may look forward to celebrating National Tequila Day , aka Thank A Bat Day, on July 24, I will be celebrating the birth of bat pups in Kartchner Cavern’s Big Room. This chamber is home to a small colony of myotis velifer, or the common cave bat. 

Every year on April 15, Kartchner staff close all the doors to the Big Room, turn off all the lights, and do not enter the cave again until late September, well after the bats have migrated away to hibernate for the winter. During the summer months, the bats are busy giving birth, raising pups, and teaching them how to fly, echolocate, and hunt for their food. You may visit the Rotunda and Throne rooms during the summer, but, in the Big Room, it’s all about baby bats. Like the rangers at Kartchner, we should feel good about honoring the privacy of this very special colony as it perpetuates a life cycle perfected by more than 50 million years of evolution. 

Two other bats common to the Arizona and Mexico region are the Lesser Long-nosed Bats and Mexican Long-tongued Bats . As their facial characteristics feature prominently in their names, can you guess what they eat? Both are nectar feeders and pollinators! They literally bathe themselves in pollen while searching for the fruits of agaves, saguaros, and organ pipe cacti. Like most animals, they are highly opportunistic and will also visit not-quite-depleted hummingbird feeders after those tiny birds have gone to roost. (Now you know why your nectar disappears overnight.)

It’s worth mentioning the monetary impact of bat populations; some people can relate more to dollars than wings, feathers, or fins. (Not judging! We all need their expertise and their support, too.) The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that, by eating insects, bats save U.S. agriculture billions of dollars per year in pest control. Some studies have estimated that service to be worth over $3.7 billion per year, and possibly as much as $53 billion, but this does not include the volume of insects eaten by bats in forest ecosystems, which benefits the lumber, paper, and other forest industries, or the bats’ service as pollinators. My calculator says the actual monetary worth of bats is far greater than $3.7 billion per year. Incalculable?  Maybe. But that’s another story.

Bats in the tropics

Traveling much farther west around the globe and sailing south into the Indian Ocean, we can find my favorite bat, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, or flying fox, a common name for larger fruit bat species in the world. The Rods, as they are affectionately known, are considered endangered (by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the wild, they only exist on the tiny island of Rodrigues located about 900 miles east of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. They live in dense tropical rainforests filled with large, mature trees (emphasis on mature, not young). 

In the 1970s, as the Rodrigues rainforests were cut and their habitat destroyed, the Rod colonies were pushed further and further to the edge of their 42 square mile island until they occupied just a small, wooded valley—barely enough room to survive. Unlike some of their desert counterparts, Rodrigues bats are frugivores and use their keen eyesight and sense of smell to find ripening mangoes, figs, and other fruits. The extraordinary thing is that they crush their food, swallow only the juices, and spit out the pulp and seeds in a pellet shape, creating a ready-made seed-packet. They live simply to regrow the rainforests. 

Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to regrow the forests fast enough. After a cyclone hit the island in 1979, the Rods were down to less than 70 individuals; they had become the rarest bats on Earth. Emergency conservation efforts led by English naturalist George Durrell brought them back from the brink of extinction. Individuals from Durrell’s first translocated colony are now being raised and cared for by about 15 accredited institutions worldwide, including the Oregon Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Chester Zoo in northwest England—home to the largest Rodrigues colony in the world and holder of the Rod bat stud book—and soon, the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson! 

More bats coming to Tucson 

In the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, guests will have the opportunity to observe these amazing animals and learn how they, along with our own desert species, contribute to the health of our planet. As a bat fan, I want you to hear this bat’s story and understand the role they play in the web of life. Most importantly, I want you to care.   

When I contemplate the fate our natural world, pretty much an everyday occurrence in 2021, I find inspiration in the words of my wildlife heroes, Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau , about Why We Should Care. Both individuals dedicated their lives to conservation of the natural world by raising our awareness and demonstrating how each one of us is connected to the web of life. Goodall said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” Cousteau may have said it more simply but with no less conviction, “People only protect what they love.”

I’m proud to say that in our little corner of the desert southwest, our small but mighty Reid Park Zoo will become one of a select few chosen to help maintain a genetically diverse population of Rodrigues Fruit Bats and, through human care, research, and financial support, prevent their extinction in the wild. When this new habitat opens, I hope that your first encounter with these small furry creatures, living their topsy-turvy lives on the perpetual night shift, fills you with a sense of wonder and excitement and inspires you to support their conservation. I hope you, too, will experience love at first sight.

Though they might not be quite as well known as their larger cousins, the Ostriches, Greater Rheas have their own charms. For example, Flora and Fauna are two female Greater Rheas who live with some Galapagos tortoises in the South America loop of the Reid Park Zoo. They can’t wait for visitors to notice them, usually hurrying right up to look you quizzically in the eye and staying there as long as you do.

Rheas come to us from Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries in southeastern South America. They live in grasslands and scrublands, near sources of water. They’re flightless, and range from 3-5 feet tall (the males are bigger ) and weigh from 33 to 66 pounds. That’s one big bird – with really long wings that are only used for balance (flapping sort of like a rudder) while they’re running or dodging predators. They have three toes on each foot, and could definitely hold their own in the big, flightless bird Olympics – they can run 40 miles per hour!

When you think about it, female Rheas have a pretty nice life, and not just in their roomy habitat at the Reid Park Zoo. First of all, they lay golden eggs! It’s true – the eggs are a golden color. Secondly, once they’ve laid those eggs, their child-rearing duties are complete. They’re free to spend their days poking around for plants, seeds, roots, and maybe even a lizard or two.

Male Greater Rheas usually mate with multiple females, then build huge nests, where each of these lucky females lays about 5 eggs over a week or so. Nests can accommodate up to 60 eggs. It’s the dad’s responsibility to incubate all those eggs for about six weeks. Well, unless he’s a really dominant male, in which case he might designate a male underling to care for this batch of eggs while he goes off on another mating spree and has to build another nest.  

Anyway, the males summon females for mating by calling VERY loudly. It’s no wonder, then, that the baby chicks, just before hatching, begin whistling – loudly! Once they hatch, the male continues to bear all the responsibility for raising them.
The Greater Rheas’ conservation status is near threatened, due mostly to illegal wildlife trading of their hides, feathers, and eggs. Also, their feathers are used to make feather dusters.  But if you visit Flora and Fauna, I’m sure you’ll agree those feathers really look much nicer on these curious and amiable creatures.

Excellence and innovation are hallmarks of the care that the animals at the Reid Park Zoo receive every day from the Zoo’s Animal Care Staff. Whether it’s training a rhinoceros to allow a staff member to draw blood for the animal’s health and veterinary care, inventing a life-saving technique to treat a congenital kidney problem in an African lion, or hundreds of things staff members do to enhance the animals’ lives, the Zoo and its staff are guided by deep care, excellence, and innovation. 

A good example of excellence and innovation in the animals’ care is what is called “enrichment.” Enrichment refers to objects or activities that bring out an animal’s natural behaviors and cognitive engagement – often, the animal’s puzzle-solving skills. Just like in people, cognitive engagement and physical activity are important for keeping the Zoo’s animals mentally and physically robust. Zoo animals can’t join book clubs, play video games, or do crossword puzzles, but they can be stimulated to explore. For instance, novel scents dotted about in a habitat are very stimulating for an animal whose species naturally depends on an acute sense of smell. Objects that an animal can safely bat around or pounce on or pry open to get a treat are favorite examples of enrichment. Enrichment can even be as straightforward as rearranging permanent structures in an animal’s habitat. These kinds of things stimulate the animals’ senses and brains, and they engage the animals’ natural behaviors. Enrichment is so important to the health of the animals that the Reid Park Zoo has a staff member whose whole job is to oversee animal enrichment for the Zoo’s animals – a sort of Animal Enrichment Czar! (The real title is Animal Welfare Specialist.) 

Reid Park Zoo recently unveiled an exciting new invention for animal enrichment! You can look for it the next time you visit the Zoo. This new device is the fruit of a new collaboration between the Zoo’s “Animal Enrichment Czar” and a team of engineering students at the University of Arizona. Reid Park Zoo and the UA already have long-standing, productive collaborations in Animal Science and more recently in veterinary medicine, and this collaboration with Engineering adds a whole new dimension to those. 

The new enrichment device is getting its first use with Bella, Reid Park Zoo’s jaguar. If you haven’t seen Bella yet, her name suits her perfectly – she is absolutely beautiful! Bella already receives many types of enrichment. She has tree trunks to climb on, a pool of water to plunge into, and she is periodically given an oxtail dangling from a tree trunk high above the ground. For the oxtail, Bella needs to use her sharp vision to spot the treat and then has to figure out whether to use her impressive jumping skill or her climbing skill as the best way to get at the treat. 

What does the new enrichment device add to this? The new device has two modules, both placed just outside Bella’s habitat. The first module uses an electronic sensor to detect Bella’s presence nearby. When she approaches the sensor, the first module triggers the activation of a second module. The second module is where the fun comes in! One secondary module has a blower with a nylon sock-puppet attached to it. When the blower turns on, the sock-puppet pops up a few feet high and begins flopping and waving around. Visually tracking moving objects is an essential behavior for jaguars in the wild, and this dancing sock-puppet fully engages that behavior in Bella – she visually locks on to the puppet and follows every move. Another secondary module that the UA students designed and fabricated blows bubbles into Bella’s habitat. Bella loves the bubbles! 

You might have seen this exciting device for animal enrichment when it was featured on the local TV news. The UA Engineering students who designed and built the new device – who are referred to as “Team 21034” – won $5,000 and the Raytheon Award for Overall Design in this year’s Craig M. Berge Design Day Competition at the UA. The UA students, the Zoo, and Bella all won here! 

A great feature of this new enrichment device is that Bella can control the delivery of the enrichment herself, by figuring out how to move in ways that activate the device. It makes her overall environment more challenging and more fun. Another nice aspect is that the device is small enough to be easily moved to other animals’ habitats. The system also allows the creation of new secondary modules that could be tailored to the particular skills and behaviors of other Zoo animals, perhaps to make a sound or show a visual display, for example. Imagine the fun the Zoo’s animal care staff will have in coming up with different secondary modules for the different animals! And through its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Reid Park Zoo may be able to share the design of the new device with other AZA-accredited zoos around the country. 

Excellence and innovation – hallmarks of the Reid Park Zoo and the guiding principles for the design of the new Reid Park Zoo expansion!

In praise of ostentation!

There is one species strutting around the Reid Park Zoo, unconcerned about human visitors, and VERY impressed with their own beauty and perfection. They change their look and behavior with the seasons (breeding season, that is) and choose exactly when and where they’d like to visit you.

They can often be seen pilfering food from their animal companions in the Zoo, and seem very interested in also attracting their attention. That’s right – these ladies and gentlemen, all 17 of them, are “free range,” and no, we’re not talking about the ducks that waddle around at will or the very plump squirrels.

They are the Reid Park Zoo’s ostentation of Indian Peafowl, and yes, that’s what a group of peacocks and peahens is officially called! These 12 males and 5 females are officially part of the RPZ’s collection, which means that their health is checked annually. But they are allowed to roam around, so you never know where you might see one – on the path in front of you, squawking loudly from a tree in the Giraffe habitat, showing off for the Grevy’s Zebras, relaxing with the South African Leopard Tortoises, posing next to a White Rhino, or anywhere else they decide to go.
That’s right – anywhere. These birds are fully flighted, so they could choose to fly off from the Zoo whenever they wanted – but they know a good environment when they have one. For them, The Reid Park Zoo grounds constitute a desirable home where they can find safety, ample food and water, shelter, and yes, the admiration of many humans. Not to mention health care if they need it. Though they are unconcerned about the presence of humans in their midst, they will obligingly (if slowly) stroll out of the way if they’re blocking your path. They also seem to enjoy allowing you to photograph them.

Indian Peafowl are members of the Pheasant family. Of course, peacocks are famous for their gorgeous plumage, and no two individuals have exactly the same color patterns. They spend breeding season displaying their beautiful tail feathers in a huge fan (six or seven feet wide) in hopes of attracting a mate. After the season ends, though, they drop all these feathers and grow new ones the next year. They have unmistakable, really loud voices, usually calling in the mornings and evenings, but if it’s breeding season, all day. At night they sleep in a group in a safe, tall tree or two. In their native  habitats, India and Sri Lanka, they spend their days foraging on the ground each day for grain, insects, and even small reptiles – but at the Zoo, the smorgasbord is endless – they can forage if they choose to, but  they can much more easily find a wide variety of food just for the taking.  

Luckily for us, they live about 15-20 years, so those of us who get a special kick out of seeing these haughty creatures walking or displaying in front of us can count on this ostentatious bonus experience every time we visit The Reid Park Zoo!

Imagine you’re Charles Darwin, feeling you have a pretty good handle on the earth’s amazing biodiversity after exploring for four years and filling your ship, The Beagle, with  a multitude of live animal specimens for further study.  Then, off the coast of Ecuador, you and your crew come upon an archipelago called the Galapagos.   You realize then you most certainly haven’t seen it all!   And it’s no coincidence that Galapago is an archaic word in Spanish meaning tortoise.

Amazing Creatures

Greeting Darwin and his crew in 1835 were creatures such as the marine iguana, literally half of the Blue-Footed Boobies on earth engaging in mating rituals, the only flightless Cormorant species on earth, and a 3-inch painted locust that was capable of jumping ten feet in the air.   

But perhaps most famous and now beloved of his discoveries were the Galapagos Giant Tortoises. They were huge, they were docile, and they were everywhere.   It’s estimated that there were once 250,000 of them on the islands, and until humans discovered them, they really had no natural enemies. 

Perfectly adapted

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise subspecies vary slightly from island to island in the Archipelago, adapting perfectly to the different environments.   The major adaptation, though, has to do with shell shape – they sport either domed or “saddle-backed” shells (with an upward angle on the front of the carapace, which restricts how far UP they can extend their long necks).   It turns out that the tortoises living on more arid islands need the flexibility to reach higher up for their favorite food, the prickly pear cactus.   Those living on lush, humid islands only have to extend their necks forward to nab a delicious herbivorous dinner.

The Giant Tortoises lead a placid existence in the wild, and also in human care, sleeping up to 16 hours per day, basking in the sun, and occasionally wallowing in mud.   In the wild, Galapagos finches can often be found on their shells, symbiotically pecking pesky ticks from the folds of the tortoises’ skin.  

During mating season, things get interesting

Things perk up a bit during mating season, between January and August (depending on weather), when males may compete for females in a curious faceoff : it’s a neck-stretching and mouth opening contest, where the one with the longest neck gets the girl!  Mating can take hours, and is celebrated by the champion-necked males with an extremely loud roaring throughout.    

For visitors to the Reid Park Zoo, it’s often confusing when Ferdinand and Isabella, the two Galapagos tortoises, are enjoying this ritual.  Since the roaring is audible throughout the Zoo, guests flock to the lion habitat, but find them fast asleep – how can this be?

The females lay between 2 and 16 eggs about the size of tennis balls, burying them about 12 inches in the ground.   Then they walk away – so the hatchlings are on their own, right from the start.   The temperature in the nest will determine whether the babies will hatch as males or females. A few centuries ago, enough of these hatchlings survived to create a growing population of these long-lived giants.   Nobody can verify the life span of a Galapagos Tortoise, but it has been estimated to be up to 170 years.      

The Trouble Begins

 Spanish explorers first discovered the tortoises in the sixteenth century, and they quickly became an important shipboard food source for seafarers, including pirates, merchantmen, whalers, and yes, the crew of The Beagle.   

One of these giant tortoises’ amazing adaptations is the ability to go up to a year without food or water, making them the perfect, low-maintenance livestock onboard a ship.  They also have shells which look solid, but are very light due to a honeycomb structure.  And of course, they were very easy to capture, though maybe not to carry – some individuals can weigh more than 500 pounds. 

Also, settlers on the islands introduced invasive species, like pigs, goats, and rats, which began to consume the same plant life that had been central to the tortoises’ survival.   And of course, the tortoises were also used for food by the islands’ inhabitants.

Now they’re endangered

Originally, 14 different subspecies of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise were identified in the wild, but sadly, two of those subspecies are now believed to be extinct.   Best estimates are that only 10,000 – 15,000 altogether now survive in the wild.

But there is reason for hope

In 1959, the Ecuadorian government established Galapagos National Park in order to protect remaining habitat, and eggs began to be collected and incubated at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.    Here at home, under the guidance of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Galapagos tortoise breeding programs began in accredited zoos .  The aim was to reintroduce members of the species to the wild once their habitats were deemed safe.  The San Diego Zoo alone has hatched more than 94 Galapagos tortoise babies through the years, enabling breeding programs to get started at other AZA zoos.  It takes patience though – breeding only begins when individuals reach the age of 20-25.

Way to go, Diego

There have also been some amazing in situ success stories.   A recent example is the tale of Diego, who had been living in the San Diego Zoo and  was returned to the Charles Darwin Research Station to help repopulate his kind on the island of Espanola.  In 1965, only 26 members of Diego’s species survived there.   Since his arrival back in The Galapagos in 1976, numbers have grown to nearly 2,000.   Diego gets credit for fathering roughly 40% of them, or around 800 new tortoises.   Diego will now live out his years – he’s over 100, but of course that’s probably just late middle age for a Galapagos tortoise!   He’ll enjoy many more serene years – back on his native island.   

Darwin would approve.

Zoological Parks, like society itself, have evolved greatly over time. Keeping captured animals is no longer a symbol of wealth and status;  the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries brought both curiosity and reverence for the biological world. Fortunately, the dark history of animals cruelly wasting in cages (menageries) is the antithesis of the mission of modern zoos. The very best of these, like Reid Park Zoo, meet the strictest of qualifications as accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These modern zoos are committed to protect, conserve and enlighten. 

During most of human evolution, we co-existed with wild animals; we were all part of the natural ecosystem. However, one consequence of our advanced society is isolation from that natural world. If we are oblivious we cannot be concerned; we will never be alarmed about a threat we know nothing about. An undeniable threat currently is that our biological world is on the brink of a crisis. 

The alarming rate and number of species extinctions is a calamity that has broad implications for all of the world’s inhabitants. Oddly, the bad news is also the good news because humans, the cause of species decline, can also provide the remedy. Studies of human behavior inform us that humans are inherently compassionate; when we learn of an impending disaster we bond together to identify the resources necessary to find solutions. For example, California Condors, the largest North American birds, are back in their natural habitat today because of captive breeding in zoos. Finding remedies begins with education, as we can solve only the problems we understand. Our accredited zoos have demonstrated they are now leaders in zoological education. 

Visitors to zoos may arrive to see exotic and fascinating animals but in the process of seeing anteaters, lions and elephants, they learn about the critical role of habitat destruction putting these beloved animals in peril. Zoos in general, and our own Reid Park Zoo in particular, are uniquely responsible for reaching countless numbers of people with a message of caring for and potentially saving species for future generations to enjoy. Without the attraction of seeing these wonderful creatures, awareness and remedial actions would not occur. In a way the educational mission of Reid Park Zoo, enlightening residents and visitors to Tucson, is a gift to all of us that is longer lasting than the delight of watching otters and meerkats play. 

During an average year half a million visitors experience the magic of Reid Park Zoo and leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of zoological diversity of our world. Importantly, in an average year nearly 30,000 school children participate in educational field trips to the zoo — cost-free thanks to grant funding. Our zoo is an educational leader in Tucson and the state of Arizona; the impact of an educated populace is invaluable to all of us. 

When we think of all that the Reid Park zoo contributes to our society, enlightening Tucsonans about the threats and solutions to species in crisis may be its greatest gift. We are fortunate that Tucson has among its many wonders, this world-class educational zoo, and further that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide additional sources of wonder, empathy, and connection to the natural world.

A driving force:  Conservation

A slightly implausible family discussion:

Mom and Dad:   Where would you like to go on Saturday, you two?

Jimmy:   How about to the Animal Welfare Organization?

Susie:    Yay!   I can’t wait to see all the enrichment!  Please, Daddy?

Jimmy:  Me too!   And the inspiring animal management!  Can we?  Mom?

In other words, they’d love to go to the zoo. And although Jimmy and Susie might not notice the behavioral enrichment and quality animal management, not to mention the world-class veterinary care behind the scenes, these are all features of responsible and reputable zoos, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to the AZA, more than 183 million people visit accredited zoos in the U.S. every year, and that’s more than the annual attendance at games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined! Visits to zoos provide affordable and healthful outings with the additional bonus of education, development of empathy, and increased connection to the natural world, so crucial for today’s urban dwellers.  

None of these benefits are coincidental. Accredited zoos are carefully designed to provide habitats and enrichment that allow animals to engage as much as possible in the same activities they would in the wild. Grounds are beautiful, green, and ADA accessible. Zoo staff and volunteers are carefully trained to provide up-to-date information about each species and its conservation status, including actions visitors can take to support conservation efforts. A high-quality accredited zoo, like the Reid Park Zoo, has a robust commitment to species and habitat conservation, both on the grounds and “in situ” (in the wild).  

Commitment to Conservation

The Species Survival Plan Program

Let’s begin with what’s happening on the grounds of the Reid Park Zoo. You may notice that you’ll see both males and females of many species, for example the Grevy’s Zebras, the Baird’s Tapirs, the Lions, the Anteaters, the Meerkats, the African Elephants, the Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhinos, and more. Sometimes these males and females are together, and other times they are in adjacent habitats – why? It is all about The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.  

If certain individuals of a species are designated for breeding in a member zoo, they will be allowed to roam their habitat together, and to let nature take its course. But many of these creatures are solitary in the wild, so they prefer to have individual habitats except during breeding season. These couples need to be gradually and carefully “introduced” again every time there is a breeding recommendation for them  (examples of this at the Reid Park Zoo are the anteaters and tapirs in the South America Loop).

The SSP for each species is coordinated meticulously (by the AZA) to determine which animals can breed in order to produce offspring that will enhance the genetic diversity of the species in general. At some time in the future, when native habitats are safer for a species, perhaps offspring from these pairings can be reintroduced into the wild to begin restoring the numbers of their species. 

An inspiring SSP story comes to us from the Phoenix Zoo. The Arabian Oryx, (a beautiful antelope) was classified as extinct in the wild due to hunting. However, a breeding and reintroduction program for this animal in Phoenix enabled its reintroduction to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is now protected and boasts 1,000 individuals! An SSP in an accredited zoo can make a real difference, especially because according to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are still 33 mammals – as well as countless other creatures and plants –  in the “extinct in the wild” category. 

The SAFE Program

Another AZA initiative that the Reid Park Zoo participates in is the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which focuses on certain species threatened in the wild. The four species that are supported by our Zoo through the SAFE program are the Giraffes, the Andean Highland Flamingos, The North American Monarch Butterfly, and The North American Songbird.

  • The Flamingos: The Reid Park Zoo is the program leader for this initiative, coordinating funding for research into the Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingo species. The amazing zoo staff is also responsible for coordinating all the educational and conservation materials about the flamingos for all AZA zoos.
  • The Giraffes: Tucson’s Zoo works with the SAFE program, providing conservation messaging about poaching and habitat destruction, as well as funding toward Giraffe health monitoring and population monitoring projects in situ.
  • The Pollinator Garden: One of the most popular new areas in the Zoo is the Pollinator Garden, where native plants provide food and safety for migrating Monarch Butterflies on their way to Mexico. Numbers are closely recorded and reported to the SAFE program. Of course, this area also provides food and shelter for many other important pollinators, such as bees! There are special “bee boxes” for those bees that live in hives, and once established, they are relocated by a bee expert to agricultural areas where they can assist in even more pollination.
  • The North American Songbird SAFE program:  In  collaboration with the Audubon Society, nest boxes have been installed throughout the zoo to house several native bird species. Many enjoy the Pollinator Garden. Also, on the grounds you’ll now have opportunities to learn more about our native birds and how we can protect them.

In-Situ Conservation Partnerships

The Reid Park Zoo supports and contributes financially to a number of in-country conservation programs, including  The Tanzania Conservation and Science Program, The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil, The Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, Andean Bear Research by the University of Arizona in the Chingaza Massif region of Colombia, the International Rhino Foundation, and the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.  

Conservation is truly the core mission of The Reid Park Zoo.

And the Reid Park Zoo expansion, when completed, will allow Tucson’s Zoo to further increase their commitment to conservation, as more endangered species, such as Tigers, Siamangs, Komodo Dragons, and Red Pandas will be given a greater chance to survive for future generations. It’s nice to know that  just by visiting The Reid Park Zoo, you too will be helping to save these animals!

You really want to know, What type of animal you are seeing?

At first glance you might see an animal with a conglomeration of characteristics from more familiar species. You will see a prehensile snout like an elephant, a thick hide like a hippo, or hoofed toes like a zebra. Because it has 3 toes on its hind legs, it belongs to the Perissodactyla Order of odd- toed Ungulates. That means the tapir is not a relative of the elephant or hippo, but it IS more closely related to zebras and rhinoceros – not something you’d guess just by seeing one! But they’re definitely worth seeing.

Baird’s Tapirs have played a central role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests, grasslands, wetlands and rainforests from southern Mexico all the way down to Colombia, for millions of years. Today’s tapir are called a primitive species because according to fossil remains, they have not changed since the Eocene era (about 33 – 56 million years ago).

At 400-600 plus pounds, the adult Baird’s Tapir is the largest land mammal found in its regional habitats. Their giant football shape, tiny tail and high-stepping back legs help them move nimbly through the dense forest. With the exception of cream colored ear tips and cream color under their chins and on their chest area, they have brownish-black short fur, which covers their very muscular thick-hided and thick-necked bodies.

Their toes spread out for good traction in mud or river banks. The tapir’s ears, eyes and snouts are located on or near the top of their heads. This positioning is integral to helping the tapir stay submerged in the water while grazing or hiding from natural predators, especially humans and jaguars. It also makes them hard for researchers to locate and study. Fortunately we have learned a lot from tapirs in human care.

A standout tapir adaptation is their prehensile elongated snout. When tapirs dive into the water, this snout acts as a snorkel. Tapirs can hold their breath for several minutes under water. In this short video check out Contessa, the Reid Park Zoo’s female Baird’s Tapir, holding her breath. A tapir’s day may start at dusk emerging from a well-hidden resting niche. He may forage through the forest looking for tasty plants or ripe fruit. The tapirs’ night activity continues with a cool off in a lake or stream and a graze on aquatic plants, but by daybreak they expertly hide away for a rest. 

Tapirs are browsers who can grab and pull branches and leaves from a wide variety of plants. Tapirs are far ranging and can eat up to 200 species of plant! This leads to their important role as “seed dispersers,” helping to support a diverse healthy ecosystem. Some seeds from forest trees like the wild almond tree are only spread by a tapir! Tapirs are a critical partner in saving forests and rainforest trees. Saving tapirs is also important because they are an umbrella species; if you can save the tapirs and their lands you will also save other animals and plants. 

Tapirs are secretive and elusive to scientists attempting to study them. However with the use of camera traps  and consulting indigenous peoples, scientists can shed more light on the movements and habits of the tapir and maybe discover new species or subspecies. There are 4 known species of Tapir:  Baird’s, Brazilian, Mountain and Malayan. A newly- discovered type of tapir, Kobomani, was studied and found (by most scientists) not genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate species.

Baird’s Tapirs in The Reid Park Zoo 

An on-and- off again romance might best describe Tupi and Contessa’s relationship. Reid Park Zoo participates in the AZA Species Survival Plan program with these endangered Baird’s Tapirs. Our Zoo also contributes to the work of Chris Jordan, an in-situ scientist who is giving his life to tapir conservation

In the wild tapirs mostly are solitary, elusive animals. But when it is time to mate they find each other through scent marking and vocalizations. Here at the zoo the animal care keepers read the signs that Contessa may be receptive to breeding and give her and Tupi access to the habitat together. They have successfully produced two of the world’s cutest calves, in 2015 and 2018. Contessa’s gestation lasts about 13 months and her male calves have nursed for about two years. At the time Toliver, the first son, had grown to  some 400 pounds, he was given a new home in Puebla, Mexico. Ibu, their second calf, was given a new home in The Milwaukee Zoo, also at around two years old. 

I may have given you enough clues to answer this riddle: What looks like a watermelon with legs?     

tapir calf! All four tapir species with their diverse habitat elevations and diet produce similar looking calves with striped and dotted brownish coats for camouflage from predators.

When you come visit Reid Park Zoo’s South American Loop to look for Contessa and Tupi through the banana trees, vines and bamboo, I hope you’ll add a new species to your favorites list! And soon, once you’ve checked in with these amazing and appealing “conglomerate” creatures, you’ll be able to head over to the Reid Park Zoo expansion to see even more amazing animals!