Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ever wonder if what you are doing here is making a difference? Read this attached story of one young woman who has been inspired by our Zoo.
Jessie Lowry
Conservation Manager
Blank Park Zoo - Des Moines, Iowa

The Zoo That Grew Me
By Averee Luhrs

My family came to Iowa in 1996, when I was 3 and half years old. I remember driving up to our new home: a large salmon pink and beige house with a huge front yard and land stretching behind it. It looked immense at the time, and slightly barren. We lived out in the country in a space of shared borders; our address was Norwalk, our water Des Moines, and our school Indianola. Living 15 minutes from nearly all of my school friends, my playground was outside and my companions were animals. I raised butterflies and tadpoles, I caught snakes and rescued baby birds (on some occasions, baby mice), and I had my own Audubon field guide with my 8 year-old field notes scrawled inside. I was fascinated with the natural world, and I began to learn without even realizing it. I found that my caterpillars would always eat the plant on which I first discovered them (which is how I learned that monarchs prefer milkweed to lay their eggs). I learned that snakes liked to bask on warm surfaces on cold mornings; I learned robins make a certain noise when you get too close to their nests; I learned to tell the difference between a monarch and a viceroy, and I learned that bats would catch your leftover fishing worms if you threw them in the air high enough.

All of this knowledge, at the time, seemed to be part of my daily adventure and play. But in reality, it formed the basis for an understanding of ecology, zoology, and conservation. I do think that regardless of where I had grown up, I would have developed a love for nature, but I think I was particularly lucky to have not only had a huge back yard, but also a zoo.  When my brother and I were very young, my mother would pile us into the car and drive us 8 minutes to the zoo for the entire day, often two times a week. The zoo was the ultimate adventure for my small self. While my backyard had deer, robins, and garter snakes; the zoo had zebras, “bad hair day cranes” (Grey-crowned cranes, of course), and pythons. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the zoo offered a valuable bridge to my backyard learning: birds at the zoo still had nests and made different calls, the zebras (although certainly not deer) still lived in herds and grazed on grass, the massive pythons still preferred the warm sun, just like our tiny garters. One of the first things I remember learning from the zoo is that no matter where an animal is from or how exotic it may seem, the rules of nature still apply.  Categories like “mammals” and “reptiles” began to make sense to me on a functional level, and ecosystems and behavioral characteristics became reachable concepts.

The time I spent at the zoo also offered a bridge, however imaginary, to faraway places. The zoo helped me learn that the world was so much bigger than I often felt it could be. When you grow up in the country, especially in Iowa,  and even in the huge United States, you often feel you are living in a bubble. “The world” can seem to exist only within state or national borders. But as a child, seeing a tiger, a giraffe, an emu, or a snow monkey was revolutionary. These animals were part of a much bigger place than Des Moines or Indianola.  I could see that my backyard was only one of a billion other backyards. Somewhere a child was watching a monkey play in the trees behind her house, and another may be spotting wallabies on his way home from school. It is often incredibly difficult to achieve a sense of “worldliness” when you cannot afford to travel, but the zoo did the travelling for me, and the zoo allowed a small girl’s mind imagine the far spaces of the globe that she could someday visit.

I was 7 when the zoo opened the indoor jungle exhibit. At the time, I was particularly interested in butterflies, so the indoor butterfly garden (now home to a type of Australian sparrow, I believe) felt like pure magic. I remember being thrilled to know that butterflies from real jungles had caterpillars and chrysalises too. My excitement was only amplified when I met the new marmosets. I realized, quickly, that if you mimicked their high pitched squeaking noise you could get them to come to your side of the cage. I saw how intelligent they were (smarter than my cat at home at least) and how different they seemed from any other animal. I do think on some level I had always been interested in monkeys, but I know the marmosets were certainly a catalyst in what would turn out to be a long-lived adoration for all things primate. Before leaving one day, my brother and I were given a rare opportunity to pick out something from the gift shop. I chose Antuco, a hanging stuffed squirrel monkey. These hanging monkeys were a well-known “Wild Futures” brand series, and I would eventually start getting one with almost every visit to the zoo. I learned each one’s species (sifaka, gibbon, tamarin) and kept them all hanging in my room, swearing that I’d work in a zoo with the monkeys one day. Antuco is currently hanging next to me as I write in my room in Oxford, UK
       In the 8th grade, I job-shadowed a zookeeper at the Blank Park Zoo for a school assignment.  I don’t remember much past cleaning the huge giraffe house and asking lots of questions, but I know I was more excited for that day than I’d ever been for a day in the classroom. I was thrilled to learn about the “ZooCrew” volunteer program, which I saw (at the time) as a chance to work my way up the system. A year later, I was finally 14 and I became a certified volunteer. To say I was obsessed might be an understatement; my AIM username was (embarrassingly) “zoogrl28.” During the summer of 2006 I spent eight hours a day, three days a week volunteering for the zoo. I prepared food for the birds and the prairie dogs, I cleaned the petting zoo, and I helped the older interns with their summer camp courses. I was so incredibly excited to finally be a part of the place that I had visited so often. I got to groom Dolly, the llama that I had loved from the early days, I got to feed Barnaby the tortoise, whose long neck I had touched once when I was 8, I learned the names of the giraffes that I had known for years, and I formed a bond with nearly every goat the petting zoo had to offer.  My favorite job involved working the information stands across the zoo.  At these stands, I had little items for visitors to touch(an ostrich egg, hair from a giraffe tail, a peacock feather) and I shared facts about the exhibit animals. It was working those stands that taught me that not only could my personal knowledge be useful and interesting to others, but that many of my fellow Iowans hadn’t yet come to appreciate the astounding world of animals the same way that I had.

When I was a sophomore at Drake University (majoring in, of course, Zoology) I was able to return to the zoo as a Summer Safari Intern. I was suddenly in charge of the younger Zoo Crew volunteers and a large horde of 5 and 6 year olds each week. Again, I found a great joy in not only teaching children and parents about the natural world, but I found it particularly exciting to introduce strangers to “my” zoo. In the years that I had grown up there, I felt the zoo had grown up with me. As I had added inches to my height, the zoo had added an indoor jungle, a marvelous playground, a cool clock tower, a travelling exhibit, a lecture series on conservation, and even a newly renovated Australia sector. I was (and still am) a believer of the Blank Park Zoo, and I wanted others to understand its value to the state of Iowa.

Someone else must have believed in us too, because in the summer of 2012 the zoo was lucky enough to host the annual Zoos and Aquariums Committing to Conservation (ZACC) conference. I could not attend, because that summer I was in Rwanda for my undergraduate research, but I obsessively read the updates on Twitter and Facebook. It was through this obsession that I saw a zoo tweet about the upcoming talk of Dr. Anna Nekaris, a renowned expert on the endangered Slow Loris. Interested, I clicked the link and found that she was a tutor on the Oxford Brookes University Master’s course on Primate Conservation. It is now almost 2016, about four years later. I graduated from Drake University in 2014 with a BS in Zoology (concentrating in Primatology) and Environmental Science. I began the Brookes  Primate Conservation course in Oxford, UK in September of 2014, and finished almost exactly one year later. Now, in late January 2016, I am starting my PhD at Oxford Brookes under the tutelage of Dr. Anna Nekaris, with my work focusing on nocturnal African primates. In the last few years I have been lucky enough to see many of my favorite zoo animals in the wild. I have been able to meet many leaders in conservation and I have been to many, many different countries and cities. And I know for a fact that much of my current success stemmed from an early love for the zoo.

Every year that I can come home, I spend some time at my zoo. In many ways, the Blank Park Zoo is “home” for me. The zoo and I both continue to grow, something that I hope can continue for many years.  So here is the moral of the story:  zoos are important. Zoos can teach about nature and conservation, promote respect for wildlife, and inspire travel and adventure. A good zoo can inspire and grow a veterinarian, a scientist, a zookeeper, a teacher, a farmer, or a primatologist. A zoo can grow you. So here’s my advice. Go find your nearest accredited zoo.  Don’t just stroll through with your cell phone camera at the ready. Really make an effort to learn.  If you bring your child, help them learn as well. Learn about the animals, read the signs, watch how the animals move, and listen to how they sound. Imagine the places these animals live, and what it might be like to see one in the wild. Consider that currently, in some zoo, a little girl or boy is seeing a raccoon or a Virginia opossum for the first time, and imagining the far-off world of North America. Learn why some of the animals you see in zoos are disappearing, and imagine they are the animals you grew up with. Take action and donate to conservation projects (local or international), schedule a trip to a far-off place, or simply appreciate the natural world. The motto of the Blank Park Zoo is deceptively simple: “Do the Zoo.” So that’s my challenge. Do the zoo, but do it right. Let it teach and inspire you and your children, your friends and your family, just as it taught and inspired me. 

Averee Luhrs is living in Oxford, UK and is gearing up for three years of researching two little-known species of nocturnal primate in West Africa. She comes home to Iowa at least once a year and always visits the zoo. She asks that if you love the zoo as much as she does, that you donate, become a member, and spread the word. She can be reached at

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Essay by Beth Armstrong, ZACC Steering Committee

"Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light" -Vera Nazarian 

I love books - the incredible power of the written world to transform and transport the reader. Each year I host a conservation mentoring weekend at my home. The intent is to bring together like-minded folks that work at zoos and field projects in order to form alliances and partnerships, to create firm friendships that hopefully will last a lifetime as well as encourage those attending to mentor others that may have an interest in conservation issues as well. I bring this up because inevitably we spend the first evening discussing books  - indeed one of the gifts for all of my guests is a hand-picked book that I think they might enjoy.

It seems to be a common theme amongst many of my field and zoo colleagues - this love of reading.  I have also noticed that at ZACC conferences we often greet one another with “ What have you read lately?” Below is a sampling of books I simply could not put down.

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice  - by Mark Plotkin
The Blue Sweater - by Jacqueline Novogratz
Bird by Bird - by Anne Lamott
The Origin (the story of Darwins’s voyage on the SS Beagle) - by Irving Stone
Shadow of Man  - by Jane Goodall
Gorillas in the Mist - by Dian Fossey
Gorillas In our Midst - by Jeff Lyttle

The Origin - by Irving Stone

Short Stories:
Jaguars ripped my flesh - by Tim Cahill
A wolverine is eating my leg - by Tim Cahill

Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Blank Park Zoo

Conservation Spotlight: Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative

Kinabatangan River Spirit: Contributing to Freshwater Conservation & Sustainable Livelihoods in Northern Borneo

Although well known for its terrestrial biodiversity, Borneo Island is also a hotspot for aquatic diversity, with almost 40% of its freshwater fish species endemic to the island. The most isolated among the island’s watersheds, the Kinabatangan River has the highest levels of freshwater endemism on the island. Unfortunately, degradation of the river is experienced by local communities. Water critical for rural and urban populations is polluted and highly sedimented; and freshwater fish important for livelihoods have become scarce. Although river dwellers recognize the changes in the river, nothing has been done to document the loss in fish diversity or change in overall river health. Communities have had little role in the future of their river and have been left to adapt to the seemingly inevitable.

After spending 15 years in the United States, including a seven-year financial career in New York City, Tun-Min Poh discovered her passion for saving the fish and wanted to spread the word. She is now committed to marine and freshwater conservation, promoting sustainable fisheries in her home country of Malaysia. She runs the Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative in Malayan-Borneo, a freshwater conservation project with a focus on fish and a community-based approach.

She spoke about this initiative at the Zoos and Aquariums Committed to Conservation Conference (ZACC) earlier this summer, hosted by Blank Park Zoo. The Kinabatangan River Spirit Initiative was conceived on the basis that community participation in research and management is critical for achieving a healthy river, and developed based on the needs identified by the local Kinabatangan community. The project envisages a healthy Kinabatangan river, which supports robust freshwater biodiversity, persistence of local culture, and sustainable development. The goals of this project include providing a baseline for fish diversity, gathering information on locally and globally threatened species, and strengthening the argument for sustainable development practices in the Kinabatangan catchment. Tun-Min Poh recently sent over pictures to the Zoo documenting their work.

Photo Captions starting at top:

Workshop hosted by community-based eco-tourism cooperative KOPEL with local communities in Batu Puteh and
Mengaris to present and discuss our project and freshwater fish conservation (September 7, 2013)

A total of 45 interviews were conducted in the villages of Batu Puteh and Mengaris to identify the value of the river to the community, determine the threats, and find solutions. Here is one of our interviewers, Mr. Abdul Rahman from the Mengaris community, presenting a t-shirt to an interviewee. The production of these t-shirts was made possible by the contribution of ZACC!
The kids from Batu Puteh and Mengaris were thrilled to see their home the Kinabatangan and its wildlife presented in a poster made by their peers in the United States!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Slow Loris Conservation - submitted by Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Join the Little Fireface Project in celebrating Slow Loris Outreach Week (SLOW) September 14-20, 2013.
The aim of Slow Loris Outreach Week is to bring attention to the conservation plight of wild lorises, which are threatened not only by the pet trade but also by habitat loss and hunting for use in traditional medicines. The hope is that educating the public about these amazing creatures, which include among them the world’s only venomous primates, will inspire efforts to project them, and to denounce “cute” videos depicting loris victims of the pet trade.

Slow lorises are small primates related to lemurs. These shy, nocturnal animals can be found across Southeast Asia, moving through the forests at night feeding on tree saps and searching for insect prey. Their endearing appearance hides a fascinating fact- they are the only known venomous primates.

Slow lorises face many threats to their survival, including habitat loss. Most recently these unique creatures have become internet stars in large part due to their cute appearance. This fame is helping to fuel a cruel, illegal and unsustainable trade that harvests lorises from their wild habitats to be sold in markets as pets. Not only is  this practice having devastating effects on slow loris populations, but these unfortunate animals suffer terribly as a result. Our conservation partners at The Little Fireface Project have recently published the first scholarly paper linking viral web videos of loris pets to the surging wildlife trade.

 Be a loris web defender…
·      Don’t “like” or support online videos of pet lorises.

Instead, direct viewers and friends online to resources that expose the truth about slow loris pets and the illegal wildlife trade.

·      Spread the truth online during Slow Loris Outreach Week (September 14-20)

·      Visit to learn more about you can help slow lorises and take action by signing petitions against slow loris trade and web exploitation.