Tuesday Talk: Behind The Scenes At Washington’s National Zoo
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The Smithsonian’s National Zoo stands as one of the most intriguing destinations in Washington, D.C., a place where you can lose yourself walking amid the animals and observing some of the most unique and beautiful creatures in the world.
But for animal keepers Katy Juliano and Amanda Bobyack the National Zoo is much more than an animal oasis that lies in the heart of Washington’s Northwest quadrant. To them, the National Zoo is a life-saving habitat for endangered species, a place where animals can live, mate and thrive without the threat of being hurt or killed by homo sapiens.
During an Oct. 22 Tuesday Talk webinar, Juliano and Bobyack discussed the National Zoo’s conservation efforts, explaining how these efforts support and complement their work with endangered species.
Juliano talked about conservation breeding with tigers while Bobyack discussed the social dynamics and cognitive abilities of elephants. And both of them stressed that tigers and elephants are endangered species, making the work of the National Zoo critical in preserving and perpetuating the lifelines of these animals.
Juliano pointed out that there are six subspecies of tigers in the wild, three less than there were 100 years ago. There are about 4,000 tigers now left in the wild, but most of them, about 3,000, are Bengal tigers, a species native to the Indian subcontinent.
“Some people don’t realize there are subspecies (of tigers),” said Juliano, who works with lions, tigers and Andean bears at the National Zoo.
There are profound differences among the tiger subspecies. Juliano noted, for example, that Siberian or Amur tigers live in frigid environments in Russia and China while Sumatran tigers dwell in the rainforests of Indonesia. Neither could exist in the other’s habitat.
“There are about 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild, and maybe 400 Sumatran tigers,” said Juliano. “And these are not big numbers. For a lot of tigers unfortunately, these numbers are getting worse.”
There are about 5,000 tigers in U.S. zoos, more than exist in the wild. But in most cases, tigers in the zoo are generic, meaning they have mated with tigers outside of their genetic group or family. As a result, they can’t be introduced into the wild.
In U.S. zoos today, there are 70 to 80 Sumatran tigers, 120 Siberian tigers and 16 Malayan tigers, said Juliano, who makes yearly trips to Central and South America to work on educational programs with Latin American animal keepers.
Not surprisingly, the National Zoo is usually looking to breed tiger cubs. To accomplish this, the zoo relies on studbooks as well as species survival plans or SSPs, according to Juliano, who has worked with more than 50 animal species from giant anteaters to electric eels during her eight years with the National Zoo.
Studbooks list information on every single species in U.S. zoos, information used to develop SSPs. By using this data, zoo officials are able to pair tigers for breeding from zoos throughout the United States.
“We contact the SSP (officials), and say, ‘hey we have one female Sumatran tiger,” said Juliano. “We would like a male because we would like to breed.”
Juliano added, “We just don’t call up the Maryland zoo or the Bronx Zoo. We talk to this whole (nationwide) group because we are looking at making matches based on genetics – not just based on who is nearby.”
The Mating Game
Matching and mating tigers is a long, drawn-out process, requiring patience, persistence and luck. As an example, Juliano talked about the mating process between two tigers at the zoo, Sparky and his female companion, Damai, two Sumatran tigers.
“We do not just open the door and put the cats together,” said Juliano, who holds a Master’s Degree in Natural Resources from Oregon State University. “We do months of what we call ‘howdy’ introductions.”
During the ‘howdy’ introduction phase, zoo handlers keep the tigers separate while allowing them to see each other. As Juliano explained, “These animals are really good hunters. They are really good at killing and that honestly applies to each other.”
Juliano and others take detailed notes during this initial stage, looking for specific behaviors to determine if the animals are likely to breed.
“For females, we want them to roll around on the ground – to chuff, to head rub, to vocalize, to spray,” she said. (Chuffing is similar to a domestic cat purring. It typically occurs between a mom and her cubs or between a pair of mating tigers.)
Zookeepers look for similar behaviors in males – vocalization, chuffing, marking, head rubbing and rolling on the ground. If after several months everything goes well, the zookeepers allow the tigers to interact physically.
Juliano showed videos of the tigers, including one video of Sparky and Damai mating, a video Juliano referred to as “PG-13.”
“Very, very few people get to see these videos and these behaviors as they happen,” said Juliano. “When I talk to people at the zoo, I can try and explain a lot, but I can’t show a lot of the videos right away.”
Timing is also important in the mating game. The female tiger, for example, should be in heat.
When the tigers interact physically, zookeepers are always nearby, standing in front of the enclosures with water hoses to break up potential fights. They also stand next to doors to let the cats out if there is a problem.
There is always a physical barrier between the tigers and humans.
“We never touch our tigers or our lions,” said Juliano. “No one at the zoo ever goes into the same space with them.”
Sparky and Damai’s relationship produced one cub, a male, though tigers can have as many as five or six cubs at a time and as many as 35 cubs in a lifetime.
When a cub is born, zookeepers leave the family alone for four or five days so the cub can bond with the parents.
In the wild, tiger moms will temporarily leave their cubs to hunt, and in the zoo, tiger moms follow a similar pattern, leaving their cubs for a while. When this happens, Juliano and her colleagues sneak into the tiger enclosure to conduct quick checkups to determine if the cub is eating and healthy.
Damai stopped feeding her cub because of a medical condition so Juliano and her co-workers stepped in and bottle fed him for a month. The National Zoo eventually sent the cub to the San Diego Zoo to be raised with another cub without a mom. The National Zoo also sent Sparky to live at the Atlanta Zoo.
Juliano referred to other tigers at the zoo, including a cat named Nikita, who becomes a completely different tiger when she goes into heat. She rolls around on the ground and becomes quite playful, and when Juliano makes a chuffing sound at the animal, Nikita chuffs back.
“It is really cute,” said Juliano.
Nikita and Damai are still at the National Zoo along with another tiger named Pavel, an Amur tiger like Nikita. Despite the zoo’s best efforts, Nikita and Pavel were unable to mate.
“You can come and see (the tigers) anytime the zoo is open,” Juliano said.
Threats to Survival
Bobyack described herself as an “elephant keeper,” and like Juliano, Bobyack talked about endangered species – in her case Asian and African elephants. She cited habitat loss, poaching and human conflict as threats to the existence of the elephants.
“Poaching for their ivory is obviously a very, very serious and horrible thing that is going on,” said Bobyack, who holds a master’s degree in animal behavior and conservation from Hunters College in New York City. “Not many people are aware of the elephant skin trade and how big of a problem that is actually becoming.”
Human construction is also robbing elephants of their natural habitats, encroaching on their ancestral walkways. It is not that uncommon for African elephants to attempt to walk through a hotel, thinking it is part of their ancestral pathway.
Based on current birth and death rates, experts believe Asian and African elephants will be extinct within the next 25 to 30 years.
“We want to do everything we possibly can to make sure this does not happen,” said Bobyack.
The Smithsonian is working on a re-wilding project in Myanmar, (formerly Burma), and the National Zoo is contributing to that project by studying the social dynamics of Asian elephants.
“You can’t just release one single elephant (into the wild),” explained Bobyack, who has studied elephants in Thailand and Africa. “You have to release them as a social, dynamic herd.”
Bobyack drew a sharp distinction between African and Asian elephants, pointing out that they are two distinct species, differences reflected in their social dynamics. (The elephants at the National Zoo are Asian elephants.)
African elephants have very strong social groups and social hierarchies. Females tend to stay together and males typically leave the herd at some point.
In the African herd, the female rules, serving as a matriarch and thus determining where the herd goes and who gets to eat, for example. The matriarch, based on her inherent ancestral knowledge, takes her herd across thousands of miles in Africa to find food and shelter, never following the same path twice.
Asian elephants, by contrast, have a slightly more fluid social hierarchy. Unlike African elephants, they do not have strong matriarchs. They have dominant and submissive personalities based on their own personalities. Like their African cousins, females in the Asian herd stay together, but the males eventually leave.
One of the goals of the National Zoo is to put together an elephant herd, making it imperative for the zookeepers to learn about the elephants’ behaviors and social dynamics. Bobyack introduced viewers to some of the elephants at the zoo, and she noted that the social hierarchy of zoo elephants is less strict than that of wild elephants, important information to know as the zoo attempts to form an elephant herd.
As a graduate student, Bobyack conducted research for her master’s thesis on studying the responses of elephants to a newly built Elephant Community Center at the National Zoo.
“I was able to go back and see their first introduction into the Community Center and compare this data with the environment they were very much used to,” she said.
As expected, the elephants began smelling, manipulating objects, digging and popping their ears out, a sign of alertness.
Bobyack also discussed a mirror self-recognition study used to determine the level of cognition among certain animals. Zookeepers conducted the experiment with Ambika, an elephant in her 60s.
They placed an X on her forehead, a mark Ambika could only see in the mirror. Ambika touched the X on her forehead, not the X in the mirror, demonstrating that she knew she was seeing herself in the mirror and not another animal. Very few animals in the world have passed this self-cognition test.
“Ambika actually loved seeing herself in the mirror,” said Bobyack.
In fact, Ambika pushed other elephants out of the way so she could see herself in the mirror.
Sadly, Ambika died earlier this year.
“I loved the old lady Ambika,” Bobyack said simply. “It helps my heart a lot that I can share some of this stuff about her with you.”