Tag Archives: reptiles

Behind-The-Scenes “Natives” Tour, 04-18-19

Today, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes “natives” tour at the reptile house and got to visit with a Burrowing Owl at the Sacramento Zoo.  There were two school buses full of kids there, so I didn’t hang around much after the tour, but I still got to see and learn some cool stuff.  My tour guides were Kathryn, a keeper named Bill (who did all the reptile house stuff) and a keeper named Mike who showed me the Burrowing Owl.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

Inside the back of the reptile house it was warm and kind of humid (which is what most of the reptile need to feel comfortable). The place is laid out like a snake, in a serpentine pattern, with the back sides of the habitat enclosures along the outer walls and other tanks and materials along the center spaces and inside walls. Each enclosure has pouches on the door with cards that tell when the animals’ feeding scheduled are and what work has taken place during the week, and also give the keepers detailed information on each animal inside the enclosure.  Some of the enclosures have one or two specimens inside, but others, like the one for the tiny Dart Frogs, can have a dozen individuals in them. Somehow – usually by color pattern – the keepers can tell who each individual is.  Everybody gets weighed about once a week to make sure they’re on track physically.

The first thing I had to do when I got inside the reptile house was dip the soles of my boots in a disinfectant bath to make sure I wasn’t tracking in anything that might harm the animals inside. (And we did the same thing just before leaving the building.)

Some of the critters don’t get enough UV light inside their enclosures (because the light is set in the ceiling of the enclosures and the animals (like turtles) can’t climb up to it.  So, sometimes the critters are taken off exhibit and allowed to bask under UV lights in separate terrariums to make sure they get all the “sun” they need. When I was there, they had some handsome Hamilton’s Pond Turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) doing the basking thing. The Hamilton’s have beautiful black-and-white polka dotted faces. I don’t remember ever seeing them before, so getting to meet a couple of them was a treat.  [They’re native to the Ganges, not California.]

I also got to see the Venomous Bite Alarm: a red phone that automatically connects directly with the local fire department.  So, if a keeper or a guest gets bitten by a venomous snake, all someone has to do is knock the receiver off the phone and an alert goes out to emergency personnel who are dispatched immediately.  All of the enclosures that hold the venomous snakes also have red warning cards on them, and a garbage can underneath the door, so if the snake lunges out at someone, it falls into the can instead of on a person.  Sometimes, the low-tech stuff is what works best.

And I got to see the food room for the reptile house, which is kept separate from the food storage for the other animals in the zoo because it’s comprised mostly of live insects and small frozen mice. There were egg crates crawling with live crickets and bottles of different kinds of worms… Some of the creatures, though, are vegetarians, so there are also greens, small flowers and other goodies for them to eat.

The tour was so cool! I got so much information from the staffers, that I don’t know if I’ll remember it all. But I’ll give you some of the highlights.

I got to see the zoo’s California Newt (Taricha torosa), our state’s endemic newt (found here and nowhere else on earth).  The are considered a Species of Special Concern because their numbers are dropping due to habitat loss and having to deal with invasive species like Bullfrogs and Red-Eared Slider Turtles. They’re often confused with Rough-Skinned Newts and Red Bellied Newts, but although they’re all from the same genus, they are separate species.

The newt’s poison (which it excretes through its skin) is so potent, it can kill a dog within 4 minutes. It’s believed that the Common Gartersnake is immune to the toxin.

California Newts breed in February and March in the wild. To keep the newts from going into breeding mode with its associated “water drive” (that causes them to leave their terrestrial homes to go find water in which to breed, preferably the same water source in which they were born) the zoo controls the temperature of their habitat to “skip” the spring and jump from winter directly to a cool summer.  So far, depriving the newts of their spring time doesn’t seem to adversely affect them.  Because their habitat had to be kept cooler and drier than the rest of the reptiles’ habitats, they have their own room that’s kept around 65° for most of the year.

Like the California Newt, the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) prefers the cool weather, too, so it’s kept in the same enclosure as the newt.  It’s also a native and endemic species. It’s considered an Endangered Species and is gone from most of the state.  A “mole salamander”, it spends most of its life underground and only comes out for any extended period of time to breed.  Although they go through courtship rituals, the males and females don’t actually touch one another to reproduce. The males deposit balls of sperm on the ground or in the water, and the female then drags her body over it.

They breed in vernal pools which are temporary water features, so the baby salamanders either have to develop, absorb their gills and start breathing with their lungs before the pools dry up, or they have to “overwinter”, buried under the ground in a sort of stasis that can last for a year or more and then finish developing the next spring. Amazing.

The spots on their bodies can change as they age, but are always unique to each individual, so the keepers at the zoo can tell who’s who by looking at and tracking the spots.

Next up was the California Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas). A threatened species, and another endemic one, they’ve lost about 98% of their habitat (!) so there are a lot of efforts throughout the Sacramento Valley to try to reestablish habitat for them – and a lot of that is in and around rice fields. The zoo got their female, which is the snake I met, from a farm after she’d been accidentally run over by some of their equipment. Her body has scars on it she’s blind in one eye, and a good portion of her tail is missing… but she was very mellow and seemed very comfortable with her keeper, who said that these snakes, despite their size, aren’t as aggressive as other gartersnakes and seldom bite. Their defense mechanism is to dive under water (they spend the majority of their time in or around water) or “skunk” their attacker with musk from their cloaca.

The Giant Gartersnake can grow up to 5½ feet long, and although some of the other gartersnake species can get almost as long as the Giants, they don’t have the Giants’ girth. These are thick snakes, like rope. Their diet is mostly made up of aquatic species, lots of fish and frogs.

Then I got to meet one of the zoo’s Common Chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater), a big male with orange staining on his back. I always forget that we have these guys live in this state. I always think of them being from Arizona or Nevada… They do “push-ups” like our Western Fence Lizards do as a warning and territorial display, but their main defense is their skin.  They have extra skin hanging from their sides that they can inflate, like a balloon, when they feel threatened. Usually, they’ll climb into a rock crevice, inflate their bodies to wedge themselves in, and wait for whatever is bothering them to leave.  Bill, their keeper, said he could tell what their mood was like just by how they felt in his hands. The male Chuckwalla was super docile, and I bet he could have gone to sleep if Bill hadn’t kept moving him this way and that so I could take photos of him.

They have special longer scales around their ears (tympanic membranes) to protect them when the lizard digs into the ground or wedges itself in rocks. And they also secrete excess salt from their nose – which Bill says then then rub onto the front of the glass of their enclosure, dirtying up the glass with their salty snot. Hah!

Although they have a pair of Chuckwallas, a male and a female, the male has yet to fertilize any of the eggs the female lays.  Sometimes, they can tell the female is pregnant with eggs, but then she reabsorbed them into her body before they get laid because they don’t get fertilized. Interesting.

Their diet consists of nothing but veggies, and I got to see some of their feeding dishes with included a variety of greens and little flowers, and some protein powder.

Next up was the Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), California’s endemic turtle which is considered a “vulnerable” species. It’s lost a lot of its territory to the invasive Red Eared Slider Turtle which was brought into California for the pet trade, but then – when people found out how difficult water turtles are to keep – they were just dumped in the wild.

Unlike the Slider Turtles, the Pond Turtles have smooth marginal scutes (the “scales” along the edge of the shell in the rear) and they don’t shed their scutes. Instead, to grow, the scutes add rings to the outer rim of each one (like the rings of a tree). Like the Slider Turtles, male Pond Turtles wave their fingernails in front of the female’s face as part of the courtship ritual.

There are a couple of different ways to tell the males from the females at a glance. The easiest way it to look at the skin under the chin: if it’s a plain creamy color, it’s a male; if it has spots, it’s a female.  The female’s cloaca is also closer to the edge of the shell than the male’s is.  Both sexes have flat plastrons (the bottom half of the shell).  In some other turtle species, the female’s is flat, and the male’s is concave (so he can climb up on top of the female’s shell without rocking off).

As an aside: the Sacramento Zoo is the only zoo in the country that has a clutch of natural-born Pond Turtles. There’s a pond on the zoo property that local wild turtles went into and where they had their babies. At first, the zoo staff didn’t know that they were there, but then they saw crows snatching the babies out of the water, so the staff rushed in to rescue the little ones and now keep them as exhibit animals °and breeding stock.

When we were done with the reptile house visit, Kathryn walked me out to behind the amphitheater where their teaching animals are housed.  These included Cameron the Bateleur Eagle, Foster the Laughing Kookaburra, Charlie the Great Horned Owl, and sister Burrowing Owls, Sapphire and Ruby.

Cameron greeted us by lifting her hackles and bowing down on her perch. Rather than it being a threatening gesture, what she was actually doing was asking for someone to scratch her neck. Hah!  Charlie was being quiet in his enclosure, peeking out between some lengths of fire hose. He was a rescue and release owl who refused to fly off when he and his fellows were released in the wild. He just sat on the ground, preferring to be with humans than other owls.  Mike the keeper who looks after the educational animals, said that it’s the breeding season right now, so a lot of wild owls have been flying into the trees around Charlie’s enclosure eyeing him and hooting to him. Hah!

What I really wanted to see were the Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia), and Mike brought out one of them on the glove so I could get a close look at it. The zoo has several Burrowing Owls, but the educational ones are sisters, Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby was being anti-social this morning, so Mike brought out Sapphire. She was super mellow, and just sat on his hand, looking around while he talked about her.  (He said she has the worst mouth-breath, but I didn’t notice that. Hah!)  The owls, which are native to California, are losing their habitat all over the state, so they’re considered a vulnerable species and Species of Special Concern.

In most raptor species, the females are larger than the males, but this isn’t true of the Burrowing Owls. Males are larger and have a lighter color than the females.

It was so great to see all of the animals up so close. I got to touch most of them (except for the newt and the owl) and took photos of everyone. It was a fun tour; I’m so glad I was able to do it.

My Behind-The-Scenes Tour at the Zoo, 02-07-19

Around 10 o’clock I headed over to the Sacramento Zoo to participate in their behind-the-scenes “hoofed animal” event. I got there a little early, so I walked around the flamingo pond, and was able to get a video snippet of one of the Crested Screamers screaming.  It was in the 40’s outside, so you can actually see the bird’s breath as it squawks. Around 11:00 am I was met by a woman named Kathryn who introduced herself as my tour guide – and let me know that I was the only one who would be going on the tour, so we could take as much time as we wanted, and I’d have her all to myself.  Cool!

I let her know that I was with Tuleyome and told her about our program on one of the wishing wells in the front of the zoo. Instant bonding. She liked talking with naturalists, she said. She asked me how long I’d been a zoo member and which animals I liked. I told her I really liked the “weird” ones like the Red River Hogs and the Abyssinian Ground Hornbills — and Coconut, the baby Snow Leopard, but everybody likes him. Hah!  She said they’d set up a tour for the Hornbills but had to pull it from their schedule because they were going into their mating season and could get aggressive with strangers. They can also do special tours – for a fee – if you’d like them to; just tell them what animals you’re interested in and they’ll work up an encounter for you. The cost is a bit prohibitive for me, $150 per person, but not overly pricey for someone with a good income.  This is the first time the zoo is doing these behind-the-scenes tours (inspired by “The Zoo” television show on Animal Planet), so their staff is excited to see how things go.

Anyway, Kathryn walked me back behind the animal hospital on the grounds and into the hoofed animal pathway along the back of the zoo.  First stop was the kitchens where meals are prepared for all of the animal every morning (and sometimes in the afternoon). Kathryn picked up a bowl of carrots and leaf lettuce and then we were on our way to see the animals.

CLICK HERE to see the full album of photos. (I was so engrossed with the tour, listening to Kathryn, that I forgot to take many photos during it. D’oh!)

As we walked along, Kathryn let me know that ALL of the plants on the zoo property and non-poisonous, so if an animal is able to reach outside the confines of its enclosure and grab a snack from a nearby bush or tree, it won’t get sick. She also said that the animals are checked at least once month for any zoonotic diseases (diseases which are communicable from one animal to another, or from animals to people and vice-versa) – and that’s done in part because there’s no way for the zoo to effectively keep errant birds, squirrels, mice and rats from coming into the zoo from the outside.

First stop was the giraffe pen, and Kathryn showed me the “squeeze box” areas that the giraffes walk into when they’re going to get seen by the vet or checked out by the keepers. Because the giraffes are so tall, of course, everything is on a huge scale. When we walked along the back of their paddock, the big Masai male giraffe came up to the fence to greet us – and ask for food.  He was super picky, though, and didn’t want the lettuce or carrots we had for him. He wanted acacia leaves. So, Kathryn got a bowl of them, and I was able to feed him those. You know about the giraffe’s long purple tongue, I’m sure, but did you know that their saliva is like thick slime? It’s to protect the tongue from injury when the giraffe pulls leaves and twigs from trees. I found out just how thick it was when the giraffe licked my knuckles as he was taking the acacia leaves from me.

Also, in the pen with him, among the other giraffes, were sister Reticulated giraffes, Sky and Goody. They’re super bonded to one another, and Sky kept giving Goody lots of kisses. Goody had a malformed foot, so the zoo staff along with a medical team from UC Davis, fitted her with a special boot to even out her footing. Sky came to get some acacia leaves, too, but Goody was more shy.

Then we walked around to the zebra enclosure. All of the zebras there right now are older females who have arthritis and other health issues. Their enclosure has mostly flat ground with only a few shallow knolls, so the old gals don’t have to worry about steep climbs or uneven terrain. Each one, of course, has its own unique stripe pattern, and their keepers can immediately identify who’s who just by looking at the pattern on the zebras faces. One of the zebra came up to get carrots, but I wasn’t allowed to feed her myself because the zebras have big sharp teeth, like a donkey, and can get a little food aggressive.

Then, we went to see the Bongos.  Mama Penny and her daughter Taylor (Swift) were in the large exhibit pen and the dad (I don’t remember his name) was in the smaller one. The Bongos are actually “forest” dwellers and are larger and heavier than gazelles or other similar species. They’re also slower moving. Males are darker in color than the females, but only when they’re young and virile. When they get older and their testosterone levels drop, the take on the same coloring as the females.

Taylor had made headlines about a year ago when she escaped from the exhibit and went running through the zoo.  There had been a violent rain and wind storm one afternoon that caused tree limbs to fall into the exhibit.  It spooked her and she jumped the fence from her exhibit into the Red River Hogs’ exhibit, where the fencing was lower, and then jumped the fence there into the zoo. Luckily, the zoo had just had a fire-drill about animal containment a couple of days before Taylor’s escape, so they were able to use baffle-boards (boards with handles on them), to surround Taylor and guide her back around behind the vet clinic – along the same route I was taking with Katheryn, to get her back where she belonged. It took all of 10 minutes. Phew!

When we were done with the bongos, Kathryn and I walked back to the vet clinic where I was “released into the wild” of the zoo. I really enjoyed the one-on-one time with someone so knowledgeable about the zoo and its animals and would love to go on other excursions if they’re made available.

I left Kathryn and I walked over to the area where the big cats are, and was very happy to see that Coconut, the baby Snow Leopard, and his mom, Misha, were out on exhibit. Coconut is getting so big now that he’s almost the same size as his mom and, at first, I mistook him for his dad, Blizzard. The keeper who was standing by the exhibit said he’s now about 9 months old and may be able to stay with mom until he’s almost 3 years old – but that will depend on Misha. When she gets to the point where she thinks Coconut is big enough and feisty enough to fend for himself, she’ll stop caring for him and tolerating him.  He’s getting pretty food-aggressive right now, but so far Misha has been patient with that and lets him have whatever her wants. Today was “bone day”, so there were a few large cattle bones in the Snow Leopards’ exhibit. Coconut greedily confiscated all of them and put them in a pile so he could gnaw on them. Hah!

There was a lot of construction going on throughout the zoo. The new Okapi exhibit is being finished up and is slated to open on February 15th. Although they’re hoofed animals, too, I didn’t get to see them on my tour because they were still in quarantine. The zoo if also refurbishing the jaguar exhibit and will be expanding the lion exhibit soon… Lots of changes.

Cosmo the Baby Flamingo and Other Critters, 01-22-19

I treated myself to a walk at Sacramento Zoo to celebrate my birthday. It was bright and clear outside, and on the cold side. It was about 44° when I got to the zoo and only in the 50’s when I headed back home.

Tuleyome’s post-wildfire restoration project was up on one of the wishing wells in the zoo (and it will stay up there all year).

You get a metal token when you winter the zoo, and you can toss it into one of the three wishing wells lined up along the front of the zoo. There’s a pot of money set aside for the well projects, and whoever gets the most tokens, get the most money out of the pot… So, I’m trying to get as people as I can to put tokens into Tuleyome’s well. Hah! We’re up against a wildcat rescue group and a Grevy’s Zebra project.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

Because it was chilly, some of the animals were vying for sunny spots in their enclosures. The White-Ruffed Lemurs, for example, were lined up along the fence, some of them stretched out in the sun with their arms over their heads to warm up their limbs and bellies.

On top of their enclosure, there was an Eastern Fox Squirrel who found a warm metal corner on the screen and was stretch out on top of it with his chin resting on top of it. Hah-2!

The Wolf’s Guenon monkeys weren’t out when I went by their enclosure. Their latest baby, Rori, died suddenly of a respiratory illness last week, so maybe the momma was still in mourning.

I had never heard the big Crested Screamer birds scream before, but today, the keepers had returned one of the Screamers on exhibit, and the other two Screamers yelled when they saw him. What a racket! The one that had been returned had been off-exhibit for several weeks because it had a bad case of vertigo and couldn’t walk. Tests couldn’t find any indication of infection or disease, so they just kept the bird quiet for several weeks until it recovered by itself. It was still walking a little bit like a drunk today, and the other two Screamers kept close to it to help it along.

What was extra cute about the situation was the fact that the Screamers were followed everywhere by a little brown Fulvous Whistling Duck. The keepers said, that particular duck had bonded with one of the Screamers and followed it everywhere. When the Screamers nest and lay eggs, the duck sits in the nest with them… Awwwww… I guess he doesn’t mind the screaming.

Although I didn’t get to see Coconut today, I did get to see baby Cosmo, the young flamingo chick. She was walking with her keepers and went to the flamingo pond for a bath. At first, she didn’t want to go into the water, and kept fast-walking, just out of reach of her keepers, when they tried to grab her to set her into the pond. Finally, she walked into the water by herself and gave herself a bath for about 20 minutes. While she was doing that, the adult flamingos on the opposite side of the pond were having a fit, flapping their wings and honking at each other in excitement.

Cosmo didn’t seem to recognize them and didn’t acknowledge them in any way. She was the single hatchling in 2018 and was raised by humans, so I guess she doesn’t know she’s a flamingo yet. She is starting to pink-up, but still had a lot of gray feathers and though fully fledged is still pretty small.

The Meerkats were out, and always make me laugh. They rush all over the place, sometimes chasing their own reflections in the glass around their enclosure. And today, one of them found its way to the top of the high tower in the middle of their exhibit and kept looking around like a little furry telescope. A couple of them also spotted a helicopter flying overhead and tracked it all the way across the sky. So funny.

In the Chimps’ enclosure, one of them was lying in the sun on the floor, while the others were up near the open roof… And two of them decided to pee and pooped all over everything just as I was taking photos of them. I couldn’t help but chuckle. So rude! The orangutan was a little more polite.

The lions came out just as I walked by their enclosure, and the male was feeling kind of randy. He kept following the female around, making overtures to her, trying to get close to her back end, licking her tail. At one point, he put one of his front paws against her inner back thigh and kind of tugged softly at her. She just gave him a dirty look and kept on walking. Snub. Poor dude.

They’ve had several successful pairings in the past. They had their last litter about 5 years ago, though – three cubs – so maybe dad thinks it’s time to have some more.
I noticed the lioness licking at the wooden structures inside their enclosure (which is where the male usually “sprays”). I wonder if she wanted the uretic salt or something. I tried to get some close-up of where she was licking, and it DID look like there was something there, but I couldn’t tell for sure what it was.

I also got to see the sloth today. He’s hardly every out, but it’s really hard to get photos of him because he’s inside an enclosure that has a really tight fence-weave. The camera can’t ready see through the openings.

I had lunch at the zoo — a club sandwich, side salad and tea — but couldn’t eat it all. Their portions are either too large or my stomach is getting smaller (which would be okay with me).

I walked for a little over 3 hours, so I was at the edge of my limit for the day. I wanted to try for one last go-round to see if Coconut the Snow Leopard had come out before I left, but I just couldn’t walk anymore, so I went back to the car.