Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family planning for big cats

Senior Keeper, Kate Stone with Josie
A large part of being a zoo keeper is getting to know your animals. Being familiar with their individual personalities and their day-to-day behaviour is an essential part of good animal care since changes in their behaviour could indicate injury or illness. Often their behaviour can change according to their breeding cycle.

With some animals this change can be quite radical and potentially dangerous; a normally passive, cooperative reindeer can change into a real threat to safety overnight.

When it comes to the big cats they are never considered safe. Management is always a two-person job and we have strict safety protocols in place for even the most routine tasks.

As reported here by Senior Keeper, Hannah, we recently lost the pride of our collection, Solomon, the male African Lion. He shared his enclosure with his daughter, Josie so it was extremely important that we manage their ability to breed as well as the behavioural consequences of the breeding cycle.

We always knew when changes in the lions’ behaviour were related to breeding. They would both lose interest in food and for Solomon breeding was the one thing on his mind – he wouldn’t leave Josie alone! In the wild there is only one dominant male, he is top-dog, and the rewards for being the fittest and the strongest are the rights to breed with the females. Solomon was always top-dog.

During the breeding cycle Solomon would follow her around and stand over her whenever she lay down just in case another male wanted to mate with her, despite the fact that they were the only lions in the enclosure! In all his time here the nearest male lion was in Paignton Zoo but that didn’t stop Solomon performing in every respect like a dominant male with a territory and a female to protect.

For Josie the behaviour was a little different. First, she’d begin to flirt, which Solomon didn't seem to mind at all. However, after a while the honeymoon period would come to an end and she’d grow rapidly tired of Solomon’s attention. With Solomon being her constant shadow, she would become grumpy and irritable. This is very species-typical behaviour and in the wild it would usually lead to the pair losing all interest in food and instead spending several days together mating.

Since they were related, Josie was given a contraceptive implant which would have to be replaced every three years. The most recent replacement was on 30th November 2012.

The implant is injected just under the skin, a procedure that takes about 30 seconds. However, managing big cats is never that simple. Before we can get to that point there’s a whole lot of work to be done.

In order to get close enough to Josie to perform the procedure safely she must first be sedated inside her pen in the lion house. Once she was inside, Mike our Head Keeper, who is part of the firearms team, used the dart gun to deliver the anaesthetic. Putting animals under anaesthetic, especially big cats, is quite a risky business for both keepers and cat. When dealing with an animal that has three inch long sharp retractable claws and mighty jaws containing canine teeth four inches long, which they can open to 12 inches wide, safety is all important.

However, it’s also risky for the cat. She would have to be sedated enough to ensure she wouldn't wake up during the procedure, but not given so much that she might not wake up when given the reversal drugs. An average lioness can weigh between 110kg-140kg, animals Josie's size and bigger are not really designed to be knocked out, their body weight can be quite a strain when under the influence of anaesthetic.

To keep the procedure as stress free as possible, only Mike and our vet went into the house when they were ready to dart her. Everyone else waited outside being very quiet.

Once she was darted it took around 10 to 15 minutes for the drugs to take effect. To be sure that she was fully asleep the vet checked her for reactions. It was lucky that she had decided to lie down against the mesh of her pen so the vet could touch her easily whilst he stood safely in the keeper corridor of the house.

Once the vet was happy that she was fully sedated he could enter the pen to complete the procedure by injecting the contraceptive implant under the skin between her shoulder-blades.

After only a few minutes of full sedation she was given the reversal drugs by manual injection and within 20 minutes she was up and about in the house no doubt wondering what had happened.

After this kind of procedure it was crucial that Josie remained under observation to ensure that she recovered properly. One keeper stayed in the house making sure she was behaving as expected. Once everyone was happy that she was in good health she was let back out into the enclosure with Solomon.

For keepers participating in veterinary procedures like this is a huge perk of the job, and it's not every day you get to see something like this.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper



Monday, 18 February 2013

DZP Declares the Start of Summer

Baby meerkats enjoying the sunshine
Encouraged by the recent improvement in the weather, Plymouth attraction, Dartmoor Zoo has declared the start of summer and moved into its summer timetable six weeks ahead of schedule.

Based on the edge of Dartmoor, the zoo has borne the brunt of recent severe weather conditions including torrential rain, snow and high winds.

Operations manager, George Hyde has been counting the cost. “The weather is the one thing over which we have no control,” he says. “We’ve pulled out all the stops with special offers, free kids ticket promotions and such, but despite enthusiastic up-take, if the weather is against us then people just don’t come.”

Turning off the visitors is not the only negative impact the weather has on the zoo. In the 33 acres of natural woodland, severe weather can be very dangerous. “Sometimes there really is no option but to close the park to visitors,” explains George. “High winds after weeks of relentless heavy rain dramatically increase the possibility of trees coming down. When it comes to public safety that’s a risk we simply cannot take.”

A close call at Tiger Rock
There was a particularly close call recently when heavy snow brought down a large branch from a pine tree overhanging the tiger enclosure, causing significant damage to the perimeter of the enclosure. “On the face of it, this was a typical nightmare scenario,” says George. “A large branch breaching the perimeter of a carnivore enclosure is at the top of the list of things you don’t want to happen around here. However, because this is a real possibility we have strict procedures in place. At the time the branch came down we’d already taken precautionary measures by ensuring all three tigers were safe and secure inside their house.”

Regular tree surveys help the staff at the zoo identify potential problems and intervene before they become an issue. But with thousands of branches on hundreds of trees in both public and non-public areas it’s an almost impossible task. Recently a large branch from a beach tree came down in high winds close to the coati enclosure. It caused no serious damage but it took all available staff to remove over one ton of wood from the pathway.

“When you think of what might have happened in events like this, it’s more than a little scary,” explains George. “However, it happened after hours. If it had happened during opening hours our procedures would have already ensured that the park would have been closed to visitors.”

The expense of repairing damage and the cost of necessary closures has been keenly felt by everyone at the zoo, so the positive turn in the weather has been very welcome.

“We’ve decided that summer is already upon us and moved to summer opening hours six weeks early,” says George. “I admit that declaring the start of summer is mostly blind optimism, but with a winter like the one we’ve just had we could all use a little optimism; blind or otherwise.”

However, the radical change in schedule is not entirely whimsical. There are real practicalities in play says George, “The weather forecast for Half Term is quite favourable, the days are longer and visitor numbers are fairly good. Most importantly we need to make the best of the good weather to compensate for the unavoidable cost of the bad.”

In addition to extending the opening hours to 6pm daily the zoo is hoping to attract visitors with a number of special offers, the most recent of which is the, “BoomerangTicket” which entitles full paying visitors to a second visit free of charge. This and other offers can be found on the zoo’s web site and Facebook page.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

An Evening with...

A great evening had by all
On Friday the 8th February we hosted the first of our “Evening with...” events. They’re an opportunity for our visitors to hear all about the zoo’s activities from the senior staff whilst enjoying good food and great music.

This event was, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee” and focused on the recent history of the zoo looking at what projects we have underway and what to expect in 2013.

Head Keeper, Mike Downman (standing in for Curator, Colin Northcott currently recovering from a recent operation) got things underway with an entertaining rundown on all the animal comings and goings. He dealt admirably with the difficult task of covering the recent loss of two of our most iconic residents, Ben the European Brown Bear and more recently, Solomon the African Lion.

These major characters have played an important role in the life of the zoo and their loss is keenly felt by staff and visitors alike.

Mike also had plenty of good news such as the arrival of lots of baby Lechwe Antelope, African Pygmy Goats and more recently, meerkats as well as the touching story of bay tapir, Luta. He also brought everyone up-to-date with recent important additions to the collection including the introduction of Iberian Wolves and Grants Zebra.

Entertainment for the evening was provided by Frankie Canale-Dow, a local singer who is gathering notoriety whilst she volunteers and studies for her Extended Diploma in Animal Management here at DZP with Bicton College. She was accompanied by Gary Platts on guitar with whom she’d been working diligently over the previous weeks to learn and rehearse many new songs. They both put on a great performance roundly appreciated by the audience.

Between the main course and dessert, Conservation and Research Officer, Adam Cook gave a presentation illustrating the import contribution we make in these fields. With the help of a volunteer from the audience he was able to bring more than a little humour to what might otherwise be considered a rather dry subject. Conservation and research activities are crucial activities in the day-to-day life of a modern zoo which often go unnoticed by the visitor so we were thrilled to see just how the enthusiastic reception from the audience highlighted the value of this kind of event.

Benjamin signing copies of We Bought a Zoo
After dessert it was time for Zoo Director, Benjamin Mee to give his presentation. He took the opportunity to take the audience back to the earliest days of the Dartmoor Zoo story from the very real struggle it was to actually buy the zoo, through the drama of the jaguar escape, meeting Matt Damon and Scarlet Johansson, right up to the most recent events and future plans.

In a lively Q&A, members of the audience had the chance to quiz Ben on his talk and highlight areas of personal interest.

To close proceedings Ben kindly signed copies of, “We Bought a Zoo” and posed for photographs with the guests.

All in all, the event was a resounding success with many of the guests keen to know when the next event would be.

On 12th April we’ll be hosting, “The History of Man’s Fascination with Animal Captivity.”

UP-DATE: You can find full up-to-date details on the event here.

Presentation Team Supervisor, Emma Baker will be giving a fascinating talk illustrating the history of animal captivity from the earliest Egyptian menageries designed to enhance the status of the pharaohs through the golden age of imperial collections to the modern day zoological collection and its focus on conservation, education and research. It’s a unique opportunity to see how and why attitudes have changed over the years whilst the fascination remains the same.

Curator, Colin Northcott will then draw on his 25 years of personal experience to give a modern history of life as a zoo keeper including some truly hair-raising stories of all-too-close-encounters with large captive carnivores.

Once again, places are limited so for further information and booking, contact Naomi today.

If all that is still not enough to tempt you to join us, here are some very kind comments from the audience for, “An Evening with Benjamin Mee.”
“A big thank you to Benjamin and the rest of the staff for an absolutely fantastic evening on Friday night! The atmosphere was fantastic and I loved every second of it.” - Dawn Loxham
“Just wanted to thank everyone at Dartmoor Zoo for a lovely night last night. We got our books signed and really enjoyed the presentations from all the speakers. Meeting Benjamin was an absolute delight. He's a real inspiration and a very genuine person with amazing qualities and a fighting spirit. Thanks again for giving us the opportunity to be a part of the evening, we hope to come back and visit you all again soon.” - Emma Matthews
“What a great evening last night. So interesting and good food. Glad to see it was so well supported. To top it off, as we got into our car outside the main house, a real rumble from one of the big cats. Thanks guys.” - Amanda Mabley
“Great Evening. Thanks all, lovely to meet you, especially Ben .” - Godoartist
“Great evening at the zoo this evening. Thanks for organising...let's do it again sometime!” - Lindsay Brown
“Had a great evening @DartmoorZoo last night with #BenjaminMee. He gives me great strength and hope and is a true inspiration to me. “ - @EmmasPlanet
“Last night was brilliant! Thank you for such an enjoyable evening.” - @APieceofCake7
“Just home from a great inspirational evening @DartmoorZoo. Interesting talks from the keepers, good food and a chat with the man himself!“ - @onlyloupigs
“Please thank everyone for a great evening. We learnt a lot about behind the public scenes. Must look up some of the animals mentioned.” - @pakafe
“Adam Cook @DartmoorZoo has helped me realise just how important the behind the scenes work this zoo does is to other zoos and the animals.” - @TraumaCleaning
“I had such an amazing time meeting Benjamin Mee last night, from Dartmoor Zoo. He's truly inspirational.“ - @APieceofCake7
“Great night at Dartmoor Zoo's ‘An Evening with Benjamin Mee’ Thank you all at DZP.” - @mazhome
Contact Naomi today for information and booking.


Behind the scenes with the big cats

Behind the scenes with our Amur Tigers
One of the experiences we offer here at Dartmoor Zoo is being a Big Cat Keeper for the day, providing people with a chance to work alongside the keepers in the daily routine for the big cats. It’s an all-day, hands-on experience getting as close to the big cats as is possible to get without being eaten!

The day starts at 8am in the Jaguar Restaurant where participants meet the keepers they’ll be spending the day with. It’s a chance to have a cuppa and go through all the important health and safety briefing that is necessary for getting behind the scenes with the big carnivores.

Then it’s off to the keeper’s yard to prepare food for the morning feed. Most of the cats are fed every other day to approximate their natural feeding habits in the wild where not every hunt would be successful making daily feeding rare. In the wild, once a kill has been made they would eat until they are fit to burst then rest for two to three days conserving energy for the next hunt. Lions are known for sleeping around 20 out of 24 hours!

The morning round can take around two hours making sure all the animals are in their enclosures, they are healthy and showing normal behaviour. At each enclosure the keepers give the participants all the background information on the animals from a keeper’s point of view. They learn all about the individual animal’s personality and to how they would live in the wild.

One thing to bear in mind when doing an experience like this is that it’s quite common to come into contact with poo, which can be a bit stinky! Also, dealing with large carnivores means dealing with large amounts of raw meat and, when the feeding is done, lots of bones.

The highlight of the day is assisting with the big cat talk for members of the public to watch in the afternoon. Participants help the keepers put out the cats’ meat, clean their enclosure, (that’s where the poo and bones comes into it) then stand back and enjoy the public talk by the Presentation Team.

At the end of a long, often tiring day, you get to take home a certificate to say you did a Big Cat Experience at Dartmoor Zoo, as well as lots of photos and memories of getting up close and personal with our amazing cats. Oh, and don’t forget the lovely keepers!

This is one of our most popular experiences and it never fails to impress. You can find out more about our Big Cat Keeper for a Day experience and see what visitors have to say about it here.

Kate Stone
Senior Keeper




New zebra settling in nicely

George with Milo, Ella and Benjamin Mee
On December 5th 2012 we received our new Zebras from Longleat Safari Park, and they were immediately placed in their new, purpose built stable. They took to their new home very quickly, and have rapidly become a firm favourite of the Keepers.

They were named by a special DZP visitor, George Koshti-Richman as Zebedee, Zak & Spot. They are all easily identifiable, as each zebra’s stripes are unique to that animal, a bit like our fingerprints. Zebedee can be identified by the thick black stripe down the centre of his back, Zak has thick black stripes under both eyes, and Spot has a small white “heart” shape on the top of his back right leg and a black “Y” on his upper right foreleg.

Their unique markings make it easy for us to identify individuals, but there is one intriguing questions regarding the zebra’s stripes; are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes? The answer is to be found at the end of this article.

You may be surprised to see three males together, but in zebra society this is perfectly normal. Young males leave their family herd at between one and four years old and join all male bachelor herds until they are able to lead a herd of their own. Inter zoo co-operation allows these natural set-ups to happen by sending males to other collections who have the space to hold bachelor herds. Here at DZP they can form a bachelor herd where they can exhibit natural behaviours such as play fighting, learning new social skills, and generally behaving normally.

Zak, Zebedee and Spot enjoying their accommodation
Zebras can, and will become aggressive if they feel threatened, and they have some pretty formidable weapons with which to defend themselves. When confronted by any form of danger they will lash out with their powerful hind legs, or they will try to bite with their impressive teeth. Either can cause quite serious injuries and all the Keeper Team have been trained to manage the zebra with minimal risk to both parties.

We are planning to let them out into the African Paddock sometime in March, when, hopefully, the ground will have dried out. As they are designed for life in arid areas they can sometimes suffer hoof problems if the ground is too wet, and after our very rainy winter we want to make sure everything is perfect before giving them access to the fields. This has given us the opportunity to train the zebra, getting them to treat the stable block as a place of security, comfort and food. This will be important in the summer months when we may need to get them in for paddock maintenance or routine veterinary examinations and procedures.

Grants Zebras are the smallest of the Plains Zebra sub-species, being typically 120-140cms tall, and weighing on average 300Kgs. They can live up to 25 years in the wild, but in zoos and wildlife parks we can expect them to live for up to 40 years.

They are without doubt one of the most readily identifiable of all the African animals. No-one who has ever seen a Zebra can confuse it with anything else, which in a way is ironic. The very thing that makes the zebra most identifiable is the one thing that may help it when being attacked by lions, hyenas, hunting dogs or leopards. When they are in a large herd their stripes act as a disruptive camouflage, confusing predators because they cannot distinguish one individual from another.

Zebras are social animals, living in a herd system consisting of a stallion several mares and their young. Some herds may combine to form larger ones numbering several hundred, but family members will always remain close to each other.

Zebras are an iconic African species that inspire joy and excitement in all who see them, but there is still one unanswered question that perplexes staff and visitors alike. Are they white with black stripes, or black with white stripes? The current opinion from scientists is that they are black with white stripes. What do you think?  Either way they are indeed striking animals, and we look forward to seeing them in all their glory for years to come.

Mike Downman
Head Keeper


Teachers Meet the Education Team

A well attended event for Devon educators
On the 17th January we hosted the first of this year’s Educators’ Open Evenings. Attendees at these events get a showcase of all we have to offer and the chance to share their ideas and challenge us to find challenging and engaging ways to meet their learning objectives.
"[A] very enjoyable and informative evening."
"I didn’t realise how much you offered for education visits."
"Your workshops can be adapted for all levels of students, even students with English as an additional language."
These are just some of the emails and comments we received from participants at the event.

It was a great success with teachers getting a showcase of all our educational activities including our new Bush Craft workshops for primary, secondary and beyond.

Teachers and educational group organisers were also treated to a Close Encounters sessions with the extensive range of animals we use for key stage specific activities here at the zoo and in our outreach programme.

A highlight for many was the visit to our unique Dissection Theatre where we’ve been fascinating students of all ages for well over a year now. Originally designed for post sixteen classes, it’s proven to be a valuable experience for students as young as year seven.

We also managed to pick up some great suggestions from teachers in a lively question and answer session.

The DZP Education Centre’s brand new prospectus illustrating all the activities on offer was also very well received. Whilst primarily aimed at schools and colleges, all the workshops are adaptable for the general public, businesses, children’s activity groups and more. Many of the workshops on offer will form the basis of holiday activities for the general public.

Education Officer, Coral Higham is excited for the future, “We’re trying very hard to find the limit to what we can offer here but we haven’t found it yet” she says. “The input we get from teachers looking to achieve their learning objectives in fun and challenging ways really helps.”

We will be holding a second Educators’ Open Evening shortly after Easter. To book your place, please contact Coral and the team now.


Happy Birthday to Fudge

Fudge exploring her birthday treats
In January the keepers put on a very special celebration to mark the 35th birthday of a very special resident. Believed to be the oldest of her kind in captivity, Fudge the bear was born in London Zoo on the 15th January 1978.

She was born during Britain’s “Winter of Discontent” presided over by Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan. When the BBC strikes allowed, the TV schedule at the time included the likes of Mr Benn, Jackanory, The Clangers and Crackerjack. She also shares her birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929) and actor Lloyd Bridges (1913).

Fudge arrived at Dartmoor Zoo (then, Dartmoor Wildlife Park) in January 1981. She was later joined by Haley in 1988 and big male, Ben in 1993. Sadly, Ben passed away in 2012. Both Hayley and Fudge have spent the last 25 years together, 20 of those years in their current enclosure. As Bears in the wild only live to around 20 to 25 years at the most in the wild, a 35th birthday is one to celebrate.

To mark the occasion, the keepers prepared a teddy bears’ picnic complete with a bear sized Twister board. Careful consideration is needed when giving animals enrichment, so animal friendly materials were used such as water soluble glue and water based paints to ensure the Bears don’t come to any harm should they decided to eat some of their enrichment.

The enclosure was decorated with brightly painted recycled paper cups strung between the trees to give it a party atmosphere. Cardboard boxes that the keepers bring in from home were covered in wrapping paper and filled with scents such as curry powders and perfumes along with straw to fill them out to act as presents. We provided a piƱata filled with nuts and treats and hung from a tree. As a special treat Hayley and Fudge were given sugar free blackcurrant jelly and a bear-friendly birthday cake which included essential vitamins and minerals, wholemeal flour, eggs and dried blueberries. All the treats were laid out in the enclosure with fresh fish, fruit and vegetables.

All of the animal staff were there to celebrate the big day. Watching the bears push their faces into the presents to cover themselves in the strong smelling scents and eating all the specially prepared food (especially the birthday cake) is a very rewarding part of the job.

The fact that Fudge is the oldest mammal in the zoo and is not the only reason her birthday deserves special attention. Whilst records from London Zoo indicate that she is a European Brown Bear, her physical characteristics suggest that she is actually a Syrian Brown Bear. Staff are working with experts at Plymouth University examining her DNA to establish her true heritage. If this is found to be the case, she will be the oldest bear of her kind in captivity.

Syrian Brown Bears are one of the most endangered sub species, listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Whilst they can no longer be found in Syria, a military flight recently spotted some in Iraq via night vision cameras.

Apart from showing signs of arthritis in recent years, Fudge is in excellent health and very active for a lady of advanced years. Even at her age she can be expected to be around for quite a while yet. One famous Syrian bear, Kara from Vienna Zoo, lived to 41 years old.

Hollie Dutton
Keeper



Monday, 11 February 2013

Farewell to Solomon

Solomon: 1995 - 2013
The life of a zoo keeper is full of amazing highs, and some terribly sad lows. Solomon has been part of, and responsible for, so many great memories for all of those who worked with him; his death at the beginning of February was heartbreaking.

Solomon was almost 18 years old, a good age for a male lion in captivity; except for a few minor illnesses, he had enjoyed a healthy life. Routine blood tests a few years ago indicated that his kidney function was deteriorating, so he was monitored closely but continued to enjoy life to the full. Then, in mid January, Solomon suddenly became ill and was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure. In consultation with the vet, and after all potential treatments failed to improve his condition, it was decided that the kindest thing would be to put him to sleep.      

Solomon was 3 years old when he moved to Dartmoor in 1998. He was introduced to a female, Emma, and her daughter, Peggy. Emma was a large and confident lioness and, unusually for these big cats, she remained the dominant animal in the pride throughout her life. Solomon would be put in his place in no uncertain terms were he to question her authority! The lions used to be fed through a sort of meat ‘post box’; Sol would hide cautiously behind this and wait for Emma to take her piece and move away before eating his own. Peggy was gentler and it wasn’t long before Solomon became a father, siring several litters of cubs over the next few years including, of course, Josie.

After Emma’s death in 2007, a year after Peggy’s, Solomon grew rapidly into his position as top cat and relished his new place as head of the family. He would still have to watch his meat though; any opportunity to steal a snack and Josie would be there!

Solomon was a very vocal lion, roaring several times each day and always when he’d just been fed. He definitely appreciated the sound of his own voice and over the years we watched him master the art of roaring whilst keeping hold of his meat in his mouth! Sol actually had a love of making any loud noise. He would pound on the feeding hatch which, over the years, caused so much damage it eventually had to be removed! Solomon would also thump repetitively on the door to his house if the keepers were inside cleaning. This gave the door an unusual polish but eventually he bent it out of shape, and it was replaced with a mesh hatch! Still determined to make his presence felt, when shut in prior to feeding during his later years, he would pummel the floor with alternate feet – he even taught his daughter this one!

Solomon, rising to the challenge
Like any lion, Solomon spent countless hours sleeping but he enjoyed the different enrichment items we provided and particularly liked different smells, which encouraged him to scent mark. Solomon was actually quite nervous of new things and situations so we always took care to introduce anything unfamiliar gradually. He was more courageous when food was available. He once climbed much higher than we ever imagined; to reach some meat that had been placed high up in the trees for Josie. He then leapt head first 12 feet to the ground while the gathered crowd let out an almighty gasp! Solomon also gave visitors a spectacular display whenever his meat was hung from the trees. 

All those who knew Solomon well, right through to those who met him just once, were impressed by his majestic looks, his strength and amazing power. What some people may not have realised is that, though there are many wonderful words we can use to describe Solomon, intelligent probably shouldn’t be one of them! This is well illustrated by one of the very first things I was taught about looking after him. ‘If you need to get Sol in quickly for any reason, and you don’t have any meat close at hand, put a log in his house’. This, I was told, he would mistake for meat and walk straight in.  He did, and not just once or twice, but repeatedly, and over many years!  

Solomon and Josie; happy cats
Certain animals, in any zoo, will have such beauty, presence and personality that they become a favourite with many staff and visitors alike. Solomon definitely lived in this category; past and present keepers all found him nothing but a joy to care for, and hundreds of visitors have spoken of him with great wonder and admiration. Solomon leaves two sons and a daughter in other zoos, as well as Josie here at Dartmoor. The two grew ever closer, Josie keeping Sol young with her fun and games and Dad generally obliging and joining in. She will miss him as do we, he will never be forgotten. 

Solomon: an unforgettable lion, an unforgettable life.

Hannah Webb
Senior Keeper


DNA Mystery

Fudge: European or Syrian?
Here at Dartmoor Zoo there are two bears named Hayley and Fudge. It was originally believed that both were European Brown Bears, however there are notable differences between the pair. The most obvious differences, which indicate that Fudge may not be a European Brown Bear are the length of her claws, her overall size and fur colour. As a consequence, despite her records showing otherwise, we have long thought that Fudge is in fact a Syrian Brown Bear.

So, we decided to turn to scientists at Plymouth University for a definitive answer.

We contacted several zoos around Europe to find a collection willing to send hair follicles from a true Syrian Bear to compare to our own. Heidelberg Zoo in Germany kindly sent a sample of hair from a Syrian Brown Bear in their collection. We also took samples from our own bears, a process which thanks to their training was stress free for all concerned.

Dr Mairi Knight of Plymouth University’s School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences is currently working with the samples. At this point, it’s important to point out to all readers familiar with CSI that DNA sampling isn’t a straightforward case of shaking liquids about in test tubes.

The first step is to extract DNA from all the samples. Whilst extracting DNA from hair is now routine in many laboratories, since there is not much DNA contained in hair (the main source being from the follicle cells in the root) yields of usable material can be very small. To get at the DNA the scientist will digest the cells using particular enzymes to free up the DNA, and then carefully remove the other cellular material by a process of ‘chemical washing’ to leave a clean solution of just DNA. In mammal hair often colour pigments can inhibit part of the later processing and so care needs to be taken to ensure that these are also removed.

Once the DNA material has been isolated, a technique called ‘PCR’ (Polymerase Chain Reaction) is then used to amplify a small section of DNA into enough copies for analysis.

This final step involves using a Genetic Analyser which highlights the particular strands of interest. DNA sections or ‘regions’ that are known to be particularly useful for tracing the ancestry of a species will then be screened. The exact sequence of DNA from Fudge and the comparison brown bear samples can then be analysed for similarities and differences, allowing Fudge’s most likely ancestry to be determined.

There are many subspecies of the Brown Bear, which have adapted to different habitats making the specie as a whole more diverse. Brown Bears are distinguished from others by their shoulder hump, the consequence muscles specially adapted for digging. They have the widest distribution of any of the bears and can be found in Europe, Japan, North Asia and other places. Subspecies of the Brown Bear include the Alaskan, Asiatic and European Brown Bear, as well as the Grizzly Bear, Himalayan Snow Bear, Kodiak Bear and the Syrian Bear.

European Brown Bears have small, round ears and have brown fur ranging from yellow to dark brown. They can be found in Northern Europe and Russia and are the most widely distributed subspecies of bear.

Syrian Bears are the smallest subspecies of Brown Bear and the only Bear known to have long white claws. Their fur is very light brown while the fur on the shoulders has a darker grey base. Also, on some Bears there is a dark stripe running down the back.

Syrian Bears are found generally in the mountainous areas in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the former Soviet Union, however due to habitat loss and poaching, the population is in decline. They can no longer be found in Syria.

Fudge is a very special part of the DZP collection. If our suspicions are confirmed, she will be the oldest of her kind in captivity (she recently celebrated her 35th birthday). However, the search for a definitive answer to the question of Fudge’s origins is a lengthy and complex process and there’s even the possibility that the results will raise more questions. There are some within the scientific community that believe, despite the obvious physical differences between what we term to be European and Syrian Brown Bears, that at a genetic level there is a case for declaring no difference at all.

We’re very much looking forward to seeing where our investigations will take us.

Hollie Dutton
Keeper


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Baby Luta, Lives up to His Name

Luta required round-the-clock attention
There are some dates that stay with you forever, and April 5th 2012 is one date that Dartmoor Zoo staff will always remember fondly.  It was the day that Luta was born.

Luta, or Lutador to give him his full name, is a Brazilian Tapir. Brazilian Tapirs, despite their name, are found throughout South America, from northern Argentina up to Venezuela. They belong to a group of animals known as “odd toed ungulates,” a group that also includes horses and rhinos.

They feed on fruits, leaves and other plant material that occur in their tropical forest homes. Luta is the first Tapir to be born and raised at DZP, and as tapirs have a thirteen month pregnancy we had a long time to wait for his arrival.

When he eventually arrived it was a moment of joy, followed by worry and concern. We caught the moment he was born on CCTV which showed that he had a breech birth, coming out back end first. He was unable to stand and extremely weak. As a consequence he was unable to follow mum, Chana and therefore not unable to suckle.

After much deliberation we decided to take him away from his mum for hand-rearing. Every member of Animal Department helped out with this, committing to a grueling schedule of round-the-clock feeding and attention.

With each feeding we paid close attention to his condition looking for the tiniest sign of improvement or regression. He took to feeding from a bottle very easily. Every day he showed signs of regaining his strength, and crucially, the use of his back legs. He was a true fighter.

Reintroducing Luta to mum, Chana was a tense moment
Although he was out of the woods, we still had a way to go. Our biggest worry was that Luta would become imprinted on us. The earliest days are crucial to the bonding process, and spending all that time with the keepers taking care of his basic needs there was a danger that he might not realise he was in fact a tapir. To avoid this, throughout the separation period we would swap bedding between Luta and his mum so that each would be properly familiar with the other’s scent. This strategy worked really well, for when Luta was reintroduced to his mother after two weeks they both took to each other very quickly.

Initially the introductions were only for an hour, and always supervised by keepers. The supervision was not because we expected any trouble, but more because tapirs, although very gentle giants, can be a little clumsy, and it is not unknown for adults to accidentally crush babies by rolling over onto them.  

Encouraged by the behaviour of both animals we steadily progressed to “sleepovers,” whereby the new family would be left together overnight unsupervised, and within a very short time we felt confident enough to leave him with his parents permanently.

Our little boy had grown up!

Baby Luta under the watchful eye of mum on his first swim
Since that time Luta has grown into a healthy, active, inquisitive creature who doesn’t show any signs of the trauma of his early days. He can often be seen enjoying the full run of our large South American paddock which he shares with mum and dad, rhea, capybara and an assortment of ducks. He’s a firm favourite with staff and visitors alike.

We are all immensely proud of him and his fighting spirit. He took everything in his stride, and overcame all the obstacles he faced with sheer determination.  His name, Lutador, is a reflection of that; in Portuguese it means, “fighter,” and it suits him well.

Mike Downman
Head Keeper

Say, "I do" at the Zoo

Jacci & Mark meeting the tigers on their special day
© Evolve Photography
Since acquiring our license to host wedding ceremonies last year we’ve seen a whole new business begin to blossom at DZP.

There are many fantastic wedding venues around Devon, and together they represent some serious competition, but we were confident that our unique setting would attract enough attention to make our efforts worthwhile. However, we’ve been thrilled to be taking so many enquiries and bookings from prospective wedding couples.

Unlike most other venues we’ve applied the same ‘open door’ attitude that has proven so successful in our research and education activities. By limiting the amount of restrictions we allow prospective couples to tailor their special day to their specific needs.

Most couples have chosen to have their ceremony in the main house at the centre of the zoo overlooking our walk-through enclosure and the countryside beyond. It’s proven to be an ideal setting both for the ceremony itself and the pre and post ceremony celebratory drinks.

Post ceremony celebrations
© Evolve Photography
The zoo itself is of course our best asset. Many of the couples we talk to breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that they don’t have to worry about the enormous logistical problem of organising the day across a number of venues. Here at the zoo, not only is everything in one place, but between all the important events the guests are free to enjoy the zoo; a real bonus especially when there are kids to keep entertained.

Jacci and Mark came to us after having considered a number of venues in the area, for their ceremony and celebration last September. The weather was kind and they had a fantastic day.

"We had the most wonderful wedding ceremony in the Main House,” says Mark. “The setting was better than perfect. But what really made our day special was the attention and kindness we received from the staff.”

It was a real pleasure to share this important day with them, especially the smiles on their faces when they met our tigers, Vlad and his sisters, Blotch and Stripe.

It is in the nature of the business that most of the preparations happen well in advance so we’re already taking bookings well into 2014. Our next ceremony is in March.

You can find out more about weddings at DZP here or better still, contact Naomi to find out why it's a really good idea to say, "I do" at the zoo.

You can see more images of Jacci and Mark’s day here. Photos courtesy of Evolve Photography.

Say hello to our new Education Officer

New Education Officer, Coral, getting
to grips with one of her new colleagues
Last year we had to say goodbye to our fantastic Education Officer, Amy. She was a real dynamo in our education programme and during her short time here made some outstanding (even award-winning) developments. She'll be sorely missed by everyone here as well as the many teachers with whom she'd built up an excellent relationship. But we're thrilled to announce that one of those very teachers has come to fill her impressive shoes.

So, in her own words, meet Coral Higham...

"A few months ago I was asked to take on the role of Education Officer at Dartmoor Zoo. As a Biologist this was a dream come true. Walking up the driveway with all these magnificent animals just yards away topped any school driveway! I have been visiting Dartmoor Zoo since I was a young girl and can see the magical learning environment it provides. 
I have been teaching in secondary schools in London and Devon for the past 4 years, teaching Biology from preschool to A-Level and A-Level Physics. During that time I have taken on responsibilities for Gifted and Talented, Enrichment and KS2-KS3 transfer. I'm really looking forward to taking the DZP education programme forward along with my very experienced and qualified team of professionals and volunteers in environmental sciences and animal management.
We have a lot planned, beginning with a teacher evening on the 17thJanuary. This free event will highlight our new range of workshops and launch our bespoke lessons which can be tailored to the needs of any school and any subject with the learning delivered here at the education centre or through outreach. 
We are also going to be launching our DZP Rangers programme designed to give children the opportunity to gain valuable experience in animal management, conservation and a host of other subjects in a fun and exciting environment. 
If that's not enough we'll also be building a brand new reptile house, expanding on our award-winning Enterprise Challenge and bringing STEM challenges to the Zoo for families and schools to take part in, to name but a few.

I am so excited about taking on this role. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any ideas you may have, big or small, that we could carry out at DZP for you. This is a truly inspirational place to teach and an exciting learning environment for all ages. I look forward to meeting you all.
For more information on our exciting range of educational activities for everyone, contact Coral and the team today.


Farewell to Ben

Ben the bear 1991 - 2012
It was with great sadness that the zoo lost a big character last year; Ben, our male European Brown Bear, passed away in October at the age of 22. Following extensive consultation with vets he had been diagnosed with an untreatable spinal abscess resulting in paralysis in his back leg. We found ourselves faced with one of those decisions that is straight-forward, yet incredibly difficult to make. He was put to sleep on the morning of 18th of October.

Born in 1991, Ben arrived at Dartmoor Zoo two years later in 1993. He became a well known character and firm favourite with visitors. Before the zoo was taken over, visitors could feed the bears from the viewing area. This created unnatural behaviours such as begging in which the bears would sit up and raise their paws in the air. Once this was stopped and a more suitable and regulated diet of scattered fruits, vegetables, fish and meat was put in place, the begging also stopped. All three of the bears began foraging naturally for their food and managed to shed a few pounds in the process. Despite this change in diet Ben’s favourite meal never changed, it was always a Cornish pasty.

Known to many as a greedy bear, Ben would frequently let the keepers know if they were taking too long to get the food into the enclosure, huffing and grumbling in annoyance. He would always be first out at feed times picking through the meal for his much-loved grapes, as a result he was often seen sleeping off a full belly.

My personal favourite Ben moment occurred when three male members of staff spent three hours of hard graft preparing enrichment by digging a 1.5 metre tube into the ground with spades; the thought was that the bears have to work a bit harder for their food, sniffing it out and reaching into the tube to retrieve it. Ben had other ideas and within 30 seconds had ripped the tube out of the ground and was happily munching on an apple. The look on their faces was priceless.

Ben’s domineering size and personality ensured the other bears were kept on their toes whilst his strength and excellent sense of smell kept keepers on the ball, thinking of novel ways to provide enrichment. He is sorely missed by staff and visitors alike but maybe most of all by the companions he leaves behind, Hayley and Fudge.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

New Arrivals for Close Encounters


Sugar Gliders, Kyte & Calypso - too cute!
Close encounters at Dartmoor has always been a chance to get up-close and personal with some of our smaller animals and we are happy to introduce you to some of the new arrivals.

Two of our most mysterious additions are Sugar Gliders, Kyte and Calypso.  Sugar Gliders are part of the marsupial group originating from the forests of Australia.  They are nocturnal mammals closely related to possums. Their name comes from their love of sugary foods and their ability to glide distances of up to 150ft from one branch to the next.  Incredibly social in the wild, they can be found in groups of 7 adults plus their young and will be seen grooming each other in small groups.  Sugar Gliders are listed as ‘Least Concern’ under the IUCN Red List, despite the significant decrease of their natural habitat over the past 200 years they have proven to be very adaptable and can survive in small patches of remnant bushes. 

They are fascinating little creatures full of character but they take a lot of looking after. They made their debut with the public recently and were very well received. Needless to say, being this cute they’re already a firm favourite with the staff.

We’ve also added African Pygmy Dormice. As the name suggests they are a small rodent and they’re becoming more and more popular in the domestic pet trade. Also known as micro-squirrel’s these dormice are closely related to rats and mice. No more than 10cm in size, they are colony animals that live in large groups. Their diet consists of a mixture of fresh fruit, nectar and protein – often in the form of mealworm, eggs or crickets.  Here at the zoo we started with a colony of four males and one female, soon after there were two new arrivals, Bounty and Boost, now creating their own colony. 

Dexter - not cute, but very cool!
Our most recent addition, a Florida Soft Shelled Turtle, Dexter, is part of a sad rescue story with a happy ending.  Dexter arrived in a bucket at Endsleigh Garden Centre, Ivybridge, in late November.  Wrapped in a towel, covered in burnt skin pigmentation and suffering with shell distortion as a result of malnutrition and lack of light, he was a particularly unlucky turtle. Florida soft shells are native to the US and found in sand bottom lakes, ponds or slow moving water. They require much more specialist care than other common pet turtles owing to their sensitive shells that, as the name suggests, are soft and covered with skin. They are also highly carnivorous and need a wide range of foods including fish, shellfish, insects and egg.  Dexter was collected from Endsleigh by DZP at the end of December and has settled in well.

One of the largest introductions to our Close Encounter animal collection is Monty, a Flemish Giant Rabbit. Flemish giants originate from Flanders in Belgium. They are believed to have descended from meat and fur breeds of rabbit in the early 16th Century.  These species are a little different to your every day pet rabbit averaging a weight of 16 - 18 lbs. (7-8 Kg) and have been known to reach over 20 lbs (9Kg) and boast an impressive ear size of over 150mm. However, other than their incredible size the rest of their lifestyle is very similar to wild rabbits. Monty lives on a diet of hay, high fibre pellets and the occasional orange root vegetable. He spends his days happily grazing and digging in his new outdoor enclosure in the walkthrough exhibit. 

You can see our Close Encounters collection at regular slots every day at the zoo and many of the animals take part in our outreach programme visiting schools, nurseries and other places.

For more information contact the Presentation Team Supervisor, Emma Baker.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

New Arrivals

The long awaited and very adorable baby meerkats*
There’s been lots going on at DZP over the past twelve months with new additions to the collection, new babies and lots of developments. Here’s a quick round up of some of the recent highlights.

New Babies!
We've had lots of new babies recently including pygmy goats and lechwe, but the real treat came just be for Christmas in the shape of three adorable baby meerkats.

Sue and Timon are long-standing residents at DZP arriving in the spring of 2010. Though they got on very well together, in all that time we never saw any kits. But with the recent introduction of feisty young female, Xena things got very interesting. She gave birth to two girls and a boy shortly before Christmas.

Sue was always the boss of the troop and, as hoped, Xena took a back seat to let Sue take over the care of the new arrivals. This is quite common among meerkats who are known for sharing the responsibility of bringing up the young.

The arrival of the youngsters brings the total number of meerkats to six. Just a few inches in length, they made their first public appearance in early January. The keepers are working on names at the moment so we'd love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

Baby Tapir
April saw the arrival of baby tapir, Luta. His name means, "fighter" and you can find out why in this report from Head Keeper, Mike Downman.

Zebra, getting used to their new accommodation
Zebra Development
Over the past few months we have been very busy making preparations to receive three Grant’s Zebra from Longleat Safari Park. Staff and contractors have been working hard through the atrocious weather up-grading the entire perimeter fence and constructing a wonderful curved stable complex that many visitors say resembles an ark. It has three individual stables large enough to provide comfortable accommodation for the zebra as well as our herd of Lechwe Antelope and our two ostrich, providing much needed shelter from the chilly winter months.

This is the largest development we’ve undertaken for quite some time and it would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of certain members of staff (who literally threw themselves out of a plane to raise money) as well as local businesses, MST Parkins who provided much needed heavy machinery and Tesco who made a generous donation.

The Zebra arrived safely in early December and are currently going through a settling period during which they’ll be kept within the perimeter of the new building. They will be able to enjoy the full run of the main paddock soon, but in the meantime they can still be viewed in the yards from the Jaguar restaurant and play area.

The zebra are a great addition to the collection enhancing a beautiful African vista; a piece of the African plains in rural Devon. Who’d have thought?

You can see more images of the development here and here.

Mongoose Development
In other developments, the old foundation shell of a Victorian greenhouse has lent itself beautifully to becoming the new enclosure for our three mongoose. They have spent most of their time here in an indoor enclosure but this new development gives them a heated house and a large outdoor run.

The house is raised off the ground to avoid the damp with a ramp for access. The walls of the original greenhouse have been retained for their naturally aged beauty but have been modified to contain the animals with a glazed extension. We’ve also provided an outdoor heated area to allow the mongoose to have some fresh air whilst still keeping warm as well as a covered viewing area to provide visitors with shelter from the Devon weather whilst viewing the mongoose through full height glass walls.

Like the zebra development, this project was also made possible by the very generous support of Cornwall Glass & Glazing Ltd who provided all the reinforced glass. There’s a little more work to do but the Mongoose will move in to their new home within a week or so.

Iberian Wolves
Raul and Carlos in their off-show enclosure
Also on the list of “new at the zoo” is the addition of our Iberian Wolves.

To assist with an on-going breeding programme we exchanged our Grey Wolves, Sarah and Parker, with Woburn Safari Park for a trio of Iberian Wolves, Carlos and his younger brothers, Gregorio and Raul (the latter two named with the help of our visitors). Since their arrival they have been housed in our quarantine facility which is an off-show area. This gave us the perfect opportunity to make some major improvements to the old wolf enclosure to welcome our new pack.

The work entailed bringing down several trees with which we were able to build a new “natural” platform to give the wolves a high vantage point as well as shelter. Beside this platform we built an underground den which gives the wolves privacy and also allows us to catch them should the need arise for veterinary treatment or similar interventions. The enclosure containment has also been improved and with the help of Grow for Good South West the entire exhibit has been planted out with meadow flowers to bring a blaze of colour to the site in the spring and summer.

As is often the case with major developments, it has not been easy. Our planned release has been delayed by the severe weather hampering our build and the heavy rains have flooded the den before we were able to complete! So for the time being, they will remain in the off-show holding area which has all the facilities to meet their needs. We plan to have them in their new home very soon. Watch this space!

You can see more images of the wolves and the development, herehere and here.

*Thanks to Steve Haywood for the meerkat photos.