Helping the Hellbenders

Snot otter. Lasagna lizard. Devil dog. Hellbender. Whichever common name is used to describe North America’s largest salamander, unpleasant images come to mind.

Photo by David Herasimtschuk

Most people have never heard of hellbenders- until I started working at the Zoo, I hadn’t either. This is probably because despite once being widespread across the Midwest, habitat loss and decreased water quality have driven the salamanders’ population down significantly. Less than a few hundred are left in the wild, and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has partnered with Purdue University and Help the Hellbender to help save them.

While some people might not think that saving giant salamanders is an important cause, the hellbenders are an indicator species, which means they help indicate the state of their ecosystem. Hellbenders actually absorb oxygen directly out of the water through its skin and into its lungs. Because they are sensitive to pollution and sediment in the water, they are biological indicators of water quality.

For the past four years, our staff has helped to “head-start” approximately 60 hellbenders. Because they face so many challenges and have a low chance of survival if they are left to hatch in the river on their own, we raise them from a young age until they are big enough to return to the river. By doing this, we hope to reduce the chances of them being eaten by their many natural predators.

One of our growing hellbenders

Once the hellbenders are big enough (usually around 4 years old), we take them to the river and release them! Although this may sound easy, there’s a catch: there is currently only a single river in Indiana that is suitable for hellbenders to survive. That means only one river in the entire state is clean enough for them to thrive in. And that river happens to be four hours away from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Despite this, on November 1st three Zoo employees bundled up and made the long drive south to help release hellbenders into the Blue River.

This day was years in the making, and was extra special as it marked the very first release ever done with eggs found in the Blue River. Even though it was 45 degrees and pouring down rain, everyone was so excited to be a part of such a monumental step toward saving the hellbenders that we didn’t mind (that much). It was a motley group of people that arrived at the muddy riverbank to help with the release; some zoo keepers, several Purdue students, our veterinarian Dr. Kami Fox, Dave Messmann, our resident hellbender expert, and myself, the Social Media Coordinator (it was clear immediately that I was out of my element as we trudged through the mud down to the river and proceeded to wade into the thigh-deep cold river and I attempted to not drop the camera into the fast-moving current).

This was a “soft release,” which means that we placed the hellbenders into large underwater mesh cages to give them some time to acclimate to the flow of the river and the water before being fully released in a few days. Nick Burgmeier, one of the Purdue hellbender experts and our fearless leader for the day, had the pleasure of being fully submerged in the river to place the salamanders in their new home. Everyone managed to get water into their waders, except Dave Messmann, who decided to forgo waders and just wear his clothes into the river, and we were all freezing and completely covered in mud. But nobody was there for the glamour! We all did it for the common goal of helping the hellbenders. Dave, who has helped spearhead this entire project, said that his favorite things about being involved with the hellbenders include the releases, which will “hopefully help this species in the wild, learning their behavior and water quality in an aquarium setting, and working as a team to help keep the hellbenders healthy.”

Our very own Dr. Kami releasing a hellbender! Her favorite part about this project is that it’s “collaborative between multiple types of institutions including a university like Purdue, the DNR, and multiple zoos.  It demonstrates how we all need to work together as partners to save our native wildlife and habitats.”

By the end of the day, 40 hellbenders were released back into the river that they came from, which was a huge accomplishment! Everyone got to release one, and after seeing them up close even I had to admit these “devil dogs” are pretty cute. Each hellbender released was equipped with a radio transmitter, so that we can collect future data on the hellbenders’ whereabouts and survival success. Next year, the hellbenders we have been raising will likely be ready for release, and we will be able to repeat the process with the salamanders we have been working with for over three years.

There are a couple of subspecies of hellbenders (we have Easterns), but all of them are suffering. Even though the hellbenders aren’t something you can see on exhibit at our Zoo, it’s an important project. Employees like Dave have dedicated countless hours to ensure that our hellbenders are cared for properly so that one day we can rebuild a strong population in the wild.

Not everyone can go wade in a river and help release them like we did, but you can do something. Check out helpthehellbender.org to learn more about this amazing project and find out how you can help the hellbenders too!

 

Even though it was raining, it was still beautiful!

 

Dave’s poncho might have saved him from the rain, but not the freezing cold river he was wading in!

 

It takes a village for a successful hellbender release!

 

They may be squirmy and slimy, but hellbenders are also cute!

Written by Sarah Dove

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!

Click on the photos to enlarge:

peacock square|fort wayne zoo

Peacocks 101

Peacocks are a guest favorite the zoo.  Some of the most impressive photos posted by guests our Facebook and Twitter pages are close-ups of these beautiful birds.  Here’s the 101 on our shy, feathered friends:

First, about half of them aren’t technically peacocks  Only the males are called peacocks.  The females are called peahens, and babies are called pea chicks. Collectively, we call them peafowl.  And if you really want to get technical, their scientific name is Pavo cristatus.

Now that we have the terminology straight…how can we tell them apart?  It’s easy:  The males have a big, fancy train of tail feathers that they use to impress the females.  Males can be brightly-colored or all-white.  Females are either brown or all-white.

Guests sometimes ask whether the white peafowl are albino, but they’re not.  Zoo keeper Helena Lacey works with the peafowl, and notes that some of them have a “genetic color mutation” that causes the all-white coloring, but this is different from the medical condition albinism.

Now for the big question…Can peafowl fly ?
Many zoo visitors are surprised to learn that these large birds can fly.  This is most obvious at night, when they fly up to roost in trees for safety from predators.  But the peafowl are not likely to fly away from the zoo – after all, their food, caregivers, and familiar surroundings are all right here!

Although they roam freely and may not seem like an “exhibit animal,” the zoo’s peafowl are an important part of our collection.  They receive excellent care just like the other animals, including a nutritious diet, shelter in the winter, and yearly checkups from our vet staff.  The next time you see a peacock or peahen at the zoo, approach carefully and quietly – you might end up with a great photo and memory to share!

Purdue Resident Ophthalmologist Ben Bergstrom|fort wayne children's zoo

A Win-Win for Veterinary Care

The Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine and the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo have winning partnership.  Faculty and residents from the vet school travel to the zoo to provide specialized animal care.  In return, Purdue’s veterinarians gain valuable experience working with exotic animals they might not otherwise encounter.

For both parties, sharing knowledge and experience adds value as they work to provide excellent animal care.

Purdue’s faculty veterinary ophthalmologist Jean Stiles and resident Ben Bergstrom visited Fort Wayne last week to perform eye exams on a variety of zoo species.  The African black-footed penguins were among the list of patients, since penguins are susceptible to cataracts.  Dr. Stiles and Dr. Bergstrom examined several members of the zoo’s penguin flock while the zoo’s director of animal health Dr. Joe Smith and veterinarian Dr. Kami Fox offered insight on exotic animal care.  Other zoo staff assisted in holding the penguins safely for their exams (pictured below).

Dr. Joe Smith describes the zoo’s relationship with Purdue, “It’s mutually beneficial.  Sometimes we call them up here for specific cases.  Sometimes they contact us to gain experience with exotics.  They’re doing this on their own time.”

Dr. Stiles and Dr. Bergstrom did note minimal cataracts in several of the penguins that zoo staff will monitor.  No treatment is recommended at this time.

Click on the photos to enlarge:

 

 

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.”

Click on the photos to enlarge:

Turkey Vulture

They Needed a Place to Call Home

The zoo is home to two birds that might not fit in anywhere else. Vincent the turkey vulture and Maverick the red-tailed hawk reside here at the zoo because of they are considered “non-releasable.”

Both raptors came to the zoo after being rescued and rehabilitated at regional facilities. Here are their stories:

Turkey VultureVincent the turkey vulture arrived at the zoo in 2004 after spending time at Asherwood Environmental Center in Noble County, which is operated by ACRES Land Trust. Vincent was injured when he swooped down to feed on a dead animal and was hit by a vehicle. Animal carcasses located close to busy roads are dangerous to vultures and are often the result of litter. Humans throw garbage or unwanted food out of their cars, then curious field animals approach and get hit. This is a potentially deadly situation for turkey vultures that instinctively fly toward animal carcasses, regardless of whether those animals died naturally in a field or near a busy road as the result of human activites.

Vincent had bodily injuries and a severely damaged eye when he was rescued. His caregivers gave and continue to give him the best care possible, but Vincent’s injuries have left him unable to fly and also blind in one eye. Vincent is not likely to thrive in the wild and is therefore non-releasable.

Vincent has spent more than a decade here at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo under the care of vet staff and zoo keepers. According to zoo keeper Helena Lacey, Vincent requires daily eye drops and pain medication. Lacey is one of the people who administers his daily medication.

Vincent lives in an exhibit located on the Central Zoo hill across from the red panda exhibit. Despite his challenges, Vincent is usually in good spirits and appears to enjoy visitors. If you approach his exhibit, Vincent will likely turn his head completely to the side so he can see you. (He only sees out of his right eye.) If you’re lucky, you might get to observe Vincent eating rodents during his morning feeding – Just don’t tell him that’s where we put his medicine!

red-tailed hawkMaverick the red-tailed hawk is another non-releasable bird living in the Central Zoo, located near the Indiana Family Farm. According to veterinary technician Maraiah Russell, Maverick was found by a member of the public in July 2006 in Columbia City, Indiana. Maverick was unable to fly but the circumstances leading to his injury are unknown.

Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehab got involved, and Dr. Pat Funnel provided care with hopes of releasing Maverick once he recovered. However, the primary feathers on his right wing never grew back, so Maverick will never be able to fly or hunt on his own again. In 2007, the zoo received Maverick as a non-releasable bird and he has done very well here. A note to zoo guests – Don’t be alarmed if you see Maverick lying on the ground inside his exhibit. According to Russell, “Maverick likes to sunbathe on the ground with his wings spread sometimes, and many of our guests have thought he was injured or ill.”

Stories like Vincent’s and Maverick’s are often the result of human carelessness. Please avoid littering or leaving food near the side of the road. If you do spot an injured bird, call a local rehab facility like Asherwood or Soarin’ Hawk for assistance. It is everyone’s job to protect wild animals and to respect the wild places they call home.

baby orangutan fort wayne childrens zoo

Baby Orangutan Turns Two Months Old

Baby Asmara turns 2 months old this week!  The critically endangered Sumatran orangutan was born at the zoo on November 22.  Her parents are Tara and Tengku, two of the zoo’s adult orangutans.  Asmara and mom Tara are doing well behind-the-scenes and zoo fans frequently send us questions via social media about the baby.

Angie Selzer is a zoo keeper who cares for the orangutans.  She was present during Tara’s labor and witnessed the delivery of Asmara.  Selzer explains the day-to-day life of Asmara, “She spends all of her time with her mom.  Most of the time she’s nursing or sleeping in her nest.  She grips onto her mom well.”

Developing a strong grip is important for orangutans.  As Asmara grows she’ll begin climbing and swinging from tree to tree.  Selzer reports that Asmara’s development is progressing normally and that Tara is gradually introducing some early independence into her baby’s routine, “Tara is doing a really good job.  She gives Asmara tummy time and has been showing Asmara how to grip onto things other than just mom.”

Dr. Joe Smith is the zoo’s veterinarian.  He explains why the vet staff and keepers have chosen to limit behind-the-scenes access to media and even to most zoo staff, “Orangutan infants have a naïve immune system, just like human babies do, and they can contract many of the same diseases that we humans can carry.  Plus, we’re right in the middle of flu season so we’re choosing to be cautious.”

Dr. Smith stated that baby Asmara’s development is going well and that her vet staff and keepers do not have any medical concerns at this time.

About 320 Sumatran orangutans live in zoos worldwide, and an average of 15 babies are born each year in the world’s zoos. In the wild, these red-furred apes are found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, where the population is in drastic decline due to illegal hunting and the destruction of their forest homes to build palm oil plantations. Fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild. Some experts predict orangutans could become extinct in the wild within a few decades if circumstances remain unchanged.

Zoo babies are sponsored by Lutheran Children’s Hospital.  Click on the photos to enlarge:

 

 

Mr. Happy: Still “Rockin'” One Year Later

Zoo fans might remember the story of Mr. Happy, a 27-year-old Blanding’s turtle who came to us last year with a serious medical issue.  The friendly turtle, who resides at Pokagon State Park, had ingested a large rock that was blocking his digestive tract.

Blanding’s turtles are endangered in Indiana, so Mr. Happy is an important ambassador for our state’s wildlife.  When he got sick and stopped eating last year, park officials and zoo staff were quick to respond.  You can read about his surgery here.

We’re happy to report that one year later, Mr. Happy is doing great!  Staff from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo recently paid a visit to Mr. Happy and his caregivers and discovered that the turtle is healthy and thriving.

Interpretive naturalist Mandi Webb spoke of the turtle’s healthy appetitie, “He’s doing very well.  He eats a lot.  We call Mr. Happy the ‘finisher-upper’ because of how much he eats.”  Webb works with Mr. Happy almost every day and stated that his appetite never wanes.

Long-time park naturalist Fred Wooley concurred with Webb, “Mr. Happy is doing very well.  We’re fortunate to have contacts within the animal conservation field who will provide medical care for sick or injured animals.  Blanding’s turtles can live to be 80 and Mr. Happy is eating and behaving normally.”

To demonstrate his vigor, Pokagon staff arranged a race for Mr. Happy.  His opponent was Mr. Box, an eastern box turtle who resides with Mr. Happy at the park’s Nature Center.

Although Mr. Happy didn’t win this time, Webb assured his fans that the turtle wasn’t upset about the loss.  “Mr. Happy does win races sometimes, but he’s easily distracted.  Sometimes he just wants to stop and look at the leaves on the ground.”

Perhaps Mr. Happy’s story has a lesson to offer:  Don’t race too quickly to the finish line without stopping to enjoy the journey.

Click on the photos to enlarge:

Sea lions 107 pxl

How Does a Sea Lion Get to the Dentist?

How does a sea lion get to the dentist?  That’s a trick question.  Sea lions don’t go to the dentist – the dentist comes to them!  Or, in this case, the zoo’s veterinary intern, Dr. Kami Fox makes the “house call.”  Dr. Fox recently performed a dental exam on Fishbone, an thirteen-year-old sea lion at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

“Training with Fishbone has gone very smoothly and she’s very eager to work,” states Dr. Fox.

dental exam sea lionZoo keepers regularly look into the sea lions’ mouths, but the team wanted to employ x-rays to spot potential tooth problems before they become serious. To take x-rays, though, the keepers needed to prepare the animals through training that involved operant conditioning.   Zoo keeper Rachel Purcell began by training Fishbone to become comfortable with the x-ray plate in her mouth.  “I started by putting a small x-ray plate on a tongue depressor and getting her used to me situating it around in her mouth.  After she was doing well with that, Dr. Fox started visiting with the hand-held x-ray machine,” she said.

Purcell describes the sea lion’s reaction to the new procedure, “Fishbone wasn’t quite sure what to think of it at first, especially when it was touching her whiskers, but she soon got used to it.”

Dr. Fox noted that Fishbone’s mouth is generally healthy and she did not order any treatment at this time.  She did indicate some areas of concern that zoo keepers and vet staff will continue to monitor.

Dr. Fox explains the benefit of preventive exams, “Now that we know there are abnormalities associated with several of her teeth, we can continue to monitor her closely with oral exams and periodic radiographs.  If any changes occur, we are now better prepared for the necessary dental work.  This has been a prime example of how behavior training assists us with preventative medicine so that we can be proactive and provide the best possible care for our animals.”

(Click on the photos to enlarge.)