Norbert’s Going Too Fast

WOAH! Slow down, Norbert. You’re growing up too fast!

We are excited to celebrate our male Aldabra Tortoise‘s 54th birthday this week. Norbert is the oldest animal at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. And even though he was born on September 23, 1962, he is still like a teen in tortoise years. Giant tortoise species can grow up to be over 200 years old! The oldest Aldabra Tortoise alive today is 176 years old.

Aldabra Tortoises are also one of the largest tortoise species in the world. Average giant tortoises weigh around 550 pounds. Norbert currently weighs 566 pounds. No wonder tortoises aren’t very fast! These tortoises have strength instead of speed. Aldabra Tortoises can knock over shrubs and small trees to get to their food.

“Norbert may not be the fastest animal at the Zoo, but he comes over pretty quickly when zoo keepers arrive with food,” says Kylie Linke, Section Supervisor. “He also loves neck rubs.”

Norbert, like other Aldabra Tortoises, enjoys his fruits and vegetables. In their native habitats on the Aldabra Islands (north of Madagascar), these tortoises eat grass, plants and other wild weeds. At the Zoo, our Commissary Staff prepares watermelon, cantaloupe and grapevine for Norbert and his exhibit-mate, Purdue.

“Norbert and Purdue also love eating the leaves that are scattered around the exhibit, especially in the fall when they’re crunchy,” says Linke.

Purdue arrived at the Zoo in 1992, two years before Norbert. She was born in the wild and is thought to be in her late 60s. Like other female tortoises, she is a lot lighter than Norbert–weighing in at only 286 pounds.

Sadly, Norbert and Purdue’s kin have been listed as a vulnerable species due to drastic habitat loss. Even though this species has no true predators due to its size, sailors over the past 100 years have captured and killed the Aldabra Tortoises for food. And when their boats reached the Aldabra Islands, rats and dogs leave the ships to eat tortoise eggs. But recently, these tortoises have been held in wildlife conservation areas, and they were removed from the endangered species list.

Stop by the Aldabra Tortoise exhibit this week and wish Norbert a happy birthday!

See What Happens When the Zoo Vet Visits the Farm

What’s it like to give annual physicals to a barn filled with animals?  We followed zoo veterinarian Kami Fox as she visited the Indiana Family Farm this week to give check-ups to the tortoises, barn owl, and cow, and to supervise the donkeys’ yearly hoof-trimming.

Tortoises Norbert and Purdue went first.  Dr. Fox examined their mouths, noses, eyes, skin, and shells.  Zoo keepers condition the tortoises’ shells with baby oil every two weeks to keep them moisturized.  Vet techs Maraiah Russell and Angie Slentz helped Dr. Fox draw blood for lab tests to assess overall health.

Next it was Lindbergh the barn owl’s turn.  Dr. Fox examined Lindbergh’s wings and feet for abnormalities.   Dr. Fox also performed a routine blood draw on Lindbergh, then the owl was weighed on a small scale.  Lindbergh did not appear stressed during the exam but all the activity must have made her sleepy – afterwards she flew up to a high corner and took a nap!

Ellie the cow was the next patient.  Ellie weighs over 800 pounds, making her exam a five-person job from start to finish.   Keepers kept Ellie calm by offering a steady supply of apples and hay for munching.  First came Ellie’s foot exam and hoof filing by a professional farrier, which encourages even weight distribution and contributes to joint health. Next, Dr. Fox felt Ellie’s body for abnormalities and to assess the fat-to-muscle ratio that the large bovine carries.  She then listened to Ellie’s four stomachs with a stethoscope, checked her eyes and mouth, and drew a blood sample.  Finally, it was time for Ellie’s yearly TB test and vaccines.

Donkeys Sarah and Sonja also received special care.  It wasn’t time for their annual annual exam yet, but it was time for a visit from the farrier, who pronounced their feet healthy.

After the round of barnyard exams, Dr. Fox said, “There are no serious medical issues to report at this time.  All the animals are in good condition. Norbert and Purdue’s oil application will be continued to keep their skin and shells conditioned and Ellie will remain on a controlled diet to help her stay lean and healthy.  Of course, we’ll continue to monitor all of the animals year-round for any medical issues.”

When you visit the zoo this summer, stop by the Indiana Family Farm to say hello to your barnyard friends, and wish them continued good health!

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What’s the Deal With Animal Enrichment?

Animal enrichment is a big deal at the zoo.  We even dedicate one of our summer events, Ice Day, to enriching animals.  Zoo keepers, trainers, and vet staff spend a lot of time planning the animals’ enrichment calendars, but what exactly is animal enrichment, and why do we do it?

Enrichment means providing a stimulating environment that offers physical and mental challenges for an animal. When elements of an animal’s zoo environment mimic the problem-solving opportunities they encounter in the wild, the animals exhibit natural behaviors. Enrichment can help zoo animals thrive socially, mentally, and physically.

The zoo provides a variety of enrichment for animals:

Edible Enrichment  Tengku the orangutan digs for tasty seeds inside a pumpkin (2)

Finding food in the wild can be a complex activity for an animal. For instance, orangutans find ripe fruit in the wild, then forage carefully for the seeds, which they eat.  Pumpkins are an edible enrichment item for the zoo’s orangutans because the animals must use this natural foraging behavior to extract and eat the pumpkin seeds.

A capuchin monkey with ice watermarkSensory Enrichment

Many animals have a well-developed sense of smell to find prey, locate water, and avoid predators. The zoo’s capuchin monkeys love to sniff out spices scattered in their exhibits.  On a previous Ice Day, zoo keepers froze fragrant spices into ice blocks.  Upon finding an ice block, a capuchin flung it across the island!

Gorgon's brushing komodo dragonTextural Enrichment

In a natural habitat, an animal will encounter new textures every day as it forages, hunts, and finds shelter. At the zoo, keepers brush the Komodo dragon’s rough scales with a long-handled brush (from a safe distance, of course!)

 

goat food enrichment puzzle feederProblem-Solving Enrichment

Zoo keepers encourage animals to use their natural intelligence by hiding food in “puzzle feeders.” The friendly goats in the Indiana Family Farm use their problem-solving skills while they work as a group to reach tasty lettuce hidden in the feeders.

 

sea lion 600x600Training Enrichment

Zoo guests can watch the sea lions receive training enrichment every day at the 11 AM and 3 PM feeding shows. By requesting behaviors and rewarding the sea lions with fish, zoo keepers provide an intense and entertaining enrichment session. The sea lions get both physical and mental exercise, and the keepers develop a trusting relationship with the sea lions.

 

Do you want to get involved?  Join us at an upcoming Animal Enrichment Workshop, where you’ll make some of the enrichment objects that zoo animals receive every day!

Dr. Ricko Jaya and Dr. Yenny Saraswati 600pxl

Veterinarians Unite to Save Orangutans

Fort Wayne recently hosted two important conservationists: Indonesian veterinarians Yenny Saraswati and  Ricko Jaya are saving wild Sumatran orangutans with the support of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

Dr. Yenny is a senior veterinarian with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), which reintroduces Sumatran orangutans into the wild after they’ve been confiscated from the pet trade.  Keeping critically endangered Sumatran orangutans as pets is illegal in Indonesia.

“We want to put wild orangutans back in the forest,” states Dr. Yenny, “but it’s not simple.  After they are rescued we have to screen for diseases and rehabilitate the dietary problems that human food has caused.”  Dr. Yenny’s visit to the United States helped her better understand advanced animal care.  “At the Fort Wayne Zoo and the Cleveland Zoo we observed medical procedures with orangutans.  These good medical practices are something we can apply to the orangutans we rehabilitate.”

Dr. Yenny is interested in animal care because the SOCP is developing an animal sanctuary called Orangutan Haven in northeastern Sumatra, which will hold Sumatran orangutans who are no longer able to thrive in the wild.

Dr. Ricko knows the plight of exploited orangutans all too well.  He is a veterinarian and rescuer with the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) which responds to reports of illegally-kept orangutans and calls regarding human-orangutan conflicts.  Dr. Ricko enters potentially dangerous situations to physically remove the orangutans and literally carry the animals to safety.

“We try to mitigate conflicts between humans and orangutans with education, but sometimes the orangutans are already in need of medical treatment when we rescue them,” stated Dr. Ricko, “We work closely with SOCP to determine whether the orangutans can be released into the wild without additional human intervention.  If so, we release them into a national park.  We try to have as little human contact as possible, but sometimes medical intervention is required.”

Dr. Ricko explained that caring for captive animals differs from field work. “With wild animals, there is no medical recall.  We just have to observe and give them the care we think they need.  Seeing the treatment of captive animals has given me a new set of concerns and knowledge.”

In addition to emergency medical care and public education and outreach programs, the HOCRU works with local governments to develop stronger wildlife protection laws.

The transcontinental visit also benefited the zoo staff here.  Zoo veterinarian Joe Smith said, “Spending a month with Ricko and Yenny stimulated numerous conversations about diseases of orangutans, styles of medicine, available equipment, and even things like culture, politics, and traditions. While the main objective was for them to learn how orangutans are cared for in the United States, my staff, my family, and I probably learned just as much if not more in return.”

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Now THAT’S a Power Lunch!

When we say “power lunch,” we’re not talking about business executives making big decisions while noshing on a meal.  No, we’re talking about actual power – like when a 200-pound alligator lunges forward, clamps its massive jaws onto a jumbo-sized rat off a stick, then swallows it whole.

Feeding the zoo’s alligators is not for the faint of heart.  Zoo keepers deliver the gators’ food with long tongs, staying as far away from the reptiles as possible.  The zoo’s two American alligators, Ron and Penelope, are cooperative at feeding time, but they’re far from cuddly.

Aside from rats, the alligators also eat specially-formulated biscuits and gelatin – yes, gelatin – twice a week.  According to area manager Shelley Scherer, “They’re still hungry after eating the rats and biscuits.  The gelatin keeps them full without adding unnecessary calories.”

Alligators were once endangered in the United States. But strong laws and careful management brought this species back from the brink of extinction. The population of alligators is now stable.

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black-breasted leaf turtle

Teeny-Tiny Turtle Baby

Our newest zoo baby may be small, but tiny creatures are a big deal for the zoo keepers at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.  Say “hello” to our brand new black-breasted leaf turtle in the Indonesian Rain Forest

This teensy terrapin is almost three weeks old and weighs just over six grams (about the same weight as a quarter).  Black-breasted leaf turtles are an endangered species managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which makes this a very important birth.  Zoo keepers are caring for the hatchling behind-the-scenes and monitoring its progress carefully. 

Dave Messmann, who works with turtles and other zoo reptiles, related the cautious enthusiasm surrounding the baby animal, “We waited for two weeks before inviting anyone to take pictures.  We wanted to be sure that the hatchling was thriving before introducing it.  We’re excited about hatching an endangered species and we’re monitoring this one very closely.”

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Why are black-breasted leaf turtles endangered?  It all comes down to habitat destruction and over-collection.  Black-breasted leaf turtles are native to Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam and Southern China.  They are used in Traditional Asian Medicine, and are often sold as pets. These turtles’ unique facial expression and small size make them particularly attractive within the pet trade.  However, Messmann contends that this endangered species might not be as easy to rear as people assume.  “Turtles require a lot of care and proper nutrition throughout their lives.  At the zoo we give them a specific diet and document their care.  If people don’t feed and nurture them properly their shells can become deformed.”  The diet to which Messmann refers consists of fruit, vegetables, worms and crickets.

Black-breasted leaf turtles live up to 20 years but only reach an average length of five inches, making them one of the smallest turtles in the world.

Zoo babies are sponsored by Lutheran Children’s Hospital. 

 

 

crocodile skink zoo attraction

The Baby Boom Continues

The zoo’s baby boom continues as zoo keepers welcome a new addition to the Indonesian Rain Forest…a teeny, tiny, two-inch crocodile skink.  It’s the first time this reptile species has ever been hatched at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo!  This imperious addition to the animal kingdom weighed-in at two grams, approximately the weight of a pencil eraser. 

Although its name implies a lizard of force and stature, this particular crocodile skink began its life cycle in a fragile state.

Late last year, zoo keepers discovered by accident that the adult crocodile skinks had produced an egg.  Dave Messmann, a zoo keeper in the Indonesian Rain Forest, accidentally disturbed the egg while cleaning the skinks’ aquarium.  “We were concerned about the disturbance.  It’s a best-practice to avoid moving a reptile egg once it’s discovered, ” Messmann stated.  He also explained the reason why zoo keepers would have preferred avoidance, “An air pocket inside the egg can shift if the egg is moved, potentially causing the embryo to suffocate.” 

Hoping for the best, zoo keepers decided to incubate the egg and observe.  They constructed an incubator by filling a deli tub with wet moss and poking holes in the tub’s lid.  The egg was carefully placed atop the moss and the tub was placed on a shelf.  The egg was then allowed to incubate at room temperature, undisturbed.  After sixty days, a live hatchling was observed!

At eleven days old, the crocodile skink baby weighed-in at 2 grams.  Now thirty days old, the baby is doing fine and continues to develop normally.  It will likely reach an adult length of eight inches and top-out at one pound.

Zoo babies are sponsored by Lutheran Children’s Hospital.

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reticulated python zoo attraction

How Many Keepers Does it take to Hold a Python?

When Bo the reticulated python got his annual physical last week, it took seven people just to hold onto this unusual patient in the Indonesian Rain Forest.

At 15’ 3” long, Bo is 61 pounds of pure muscle and squirmed mightily to express his displeasure at this visit from the vet. 

Reticulated Python zoo attraction
It took seven zoo keepers to hold Bo during his annual vet exam.

Zoo staffers get their hands on this powerful snake only once a year, so despite Bo’s protests, zoo veterinarians Dr. Joe Smith and Dr. Kami Fox wanted to examine every inch of him (one hundred eighty-three inches, to be exact!) 

Lead snake keeper Dave Messmann held Bo’s head while other keepers and veterinary staff lined up to stretch out the snake.  Keepers inspected Bo’s skin, looking for irregularities in his scales or lumps under the skin. 

Messmann gently held Bo’s mouth open with a rubber spatula so Dr. Fox could examine the snake’s teeth.  A string was run down Bo’s spine to determine his exact length, and Dr. Fox drew blood from Bo’s tail for testing. 

“Bo is a healthy snake,” said Dr. Smith after the exam.  As if he was trying to prove his excellent physical condition, Bo downed a tasty rat immediately after being returned to his exhibit.

New Year, New Babies!

Zoo keepers got a big surprise last month when a tentacled snake in the Indonesian Rain Forest gave birth to seven babies overnight!

Zoo keepers knew that the female snake was pregnant, but weren’t sure when the babies would arrive.  An ultrasound done in December revealed a tangle of little snakes inside the mother.

Dr. Kami Fox, the zoo’s veterinary intern states that the length of gestation and anticipated due date for tentacled snakes is difficult to determine.  “We try to assess how far along they are via ultrasound but rarely do we witness the actual birth.  In this particular case, the snake gave birth during the night and in the morning we observed the new babies.” 

Tentacled snakes are ovoviviparous, which means they produce eggs inside their body, but instead of laying eggs they give birth to live young.  Here’s how it works:  The unborn snakes are nourished via egg yolk (the mother has no placenta), and the eggs hatch prior to birth.  The mother snake then delivers live young.

Tentacled snakes are ambush hunters. According to Zoo Keeper Dave Messmann, “They use their tails to anchor themselves and wait for their prey.”  At this point, the unique tentacles for which the species is named allow the snake to sense vibration from the unsuspecting prey – usually a small fish.  Once the predator becomes aware of its prey it strikes with its mouth.  The strike is lightning-fast, lasting only a matter of milliseconds. 

Baby tentacled snakes begin hunting just hours after birth.  According to Dr. Fox, “The babies come out hungry so we provide size-appropriate fish for them.”

Our veterinary team performed an ultrasound on a pregnant tentacled snake. Click for video.

 

 The only known predator to tentacled snakes is humans.

Norbert’s Favorite Things

Norbert the Aldabra giant tortoise celebrated his 51st birthday this week, reinforcing his status as the oldest animal in the zoo.  But because giant tortoises can live for more than 100 years, Norbert is just middle-aged!

Zoo keeper Ryan Coomer says that Norbert is a friendly fellow.  “He comes over to see us when we are cleaning,” Coomer says.  Norbert’s exhibit-mate, Purdue, isn’t quite as outgoing.  “She is a little bit shy.”

Norbert has a busy schedule because keepers interact with him to provide physical and mental stimulation.  Here are some of Norbert’s favorite things:

Sprinkler Time:  “Norbert likes to play in the twirly sprinkler,” Coomer says.  Play?  “Well, he sits and lets the water hit him.”  
Hose-down:  “When we spray Norbert’s shell with the hose, he’ll stand up tall and stretch out his neck,” Coomer says.  
Neck Rub:  Norbert’s scaly reptilian skin can get dry and flaky, so he gets rubbed with baby oil every month.  
Mud Wallow:  On a hot summer day, nothing beats hunkering down in a giant pool of mud.  As reptiles, tortoises use their environment to regulate their body temperature.  A good wallow does the trick.
Cactus on the Water:  Norbert chases prickly pear cactus fruits that keepers place in his pond.  
Melon Ball:  In the wild, tortoises rear up and stand on their hind legs to reach tasty foliage.  Keepers hang a melon on a rope just high enough to encourage this behavior.  “Norbert can reach pretty high when he wants to,” Coomer says.

So which of these special things did Norbert get on his birthday?  “Nothing special,” Coomer says.  “When you’re 51, it’s just another day!”

Aldabra giant tortoises are listed as vulnerable to extinction in their native home in the Aldabra Atoll, which is part of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.  Learn more here.

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