Friday, October 17, 2014

Seven Snake Myths Debunked

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications


House Slytherin forever! Vine snake checks out the camera. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Witches, werewolves and snakes? Let’s face it, snakes get a bad rap. Perhaps more than any other creature, snakes are the subject of much fear and misunderstanding. Like bats, spiders and all things deemed crawly, snakes are unfairly categorized as “creepy.” Slip into any Halloween shop and you’ll find snake motifs among the Draculas and the Swamp Things. In truth, snakes are vital to a diverse range of ecosystems on every continent (except Antarctica). While there are some snakes that pose a threat to humans, the majority of the 3,400 species of snake are harmless, only about 15% are venomous.

One reason we fear snakes could, in part, be biological. This article explains how our primate neurons might respond to an image of a snake. I can personally recall my usually very level-headed mother flinging my little brother off a hiking trail in the face of a terrifying, coiled... shoelace (in her defense we were in the heart of rattlesnake territory.)

A fear of the unknown could be to blame here. Add a dash of urban legend and you've got a recipe for total snake misunderstanding. Let’s take a look at seven popular serpent myths…

1. Snakes are evil

It all started with that apple…but snakes are not vengeful or malicious; they aren’t out to get you. While some species of snake are extremely lethal and by all means should be left alone, snakes rarely bite humans unless provoked or startled. The unlucky that are bit are just that. Luckily for us, most North American snakes aren’t venomous.

2. Snakes will hypnotize you

Snakes do not have eyelids, so they cannot blink. While certain snakes rock their head from side to side to help with their depth perception, they are not performing hypnosis. The origin of this myth may have come from observing prey species that freeze in place out of fear or go still to try to blend in when facing a snake.

3. Snakes have poison tongues

Not only is a snake’s tongue not venomous at all, but it’s a snake’s way of learning about its world. Snakes use their forked tongues to sample tiny chemical particles in the air, which tell them what is going on around them.

A corn snake shows off its beautiful pattern. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

4. Snakes are slimy

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A snake’s dry scales feel very smooth and silky, but are not gooey or slimy in the least.

5. Baby snakes are more venomous than adults

Within venomous snake species, adults are much more likely to have more potent venom than a juvenile snake.  Adults are also more likely to deliver a larger dose of venom to their prey. However, a more experienced snake has full control over its muscular functions and recognizes the need to conserve its venom, so an adult may be less inclined to resort to a defensive strike.

6. Snakes are liars

While the forked tongue symbolism in literature and folklore often represents a conniving creature, the fork in a snake’s tongue is actually a really cool adaptation. The fork allows the snake’s tongue to act sort of like a directional divining rod in that it helps the snake determine where their prey went, potential mates, or what else is in the area. They are just trying to get as much information as they can!

This precious reticulated python is about to curl up for a nap... awwwww. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

7. The only good snake is a dead snake

Snakes are unfairly persecuted as pests, but in fact they play an important role  in keeping disease in check and minimizing actual pests. Did you know that timber rattlers help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents that carry the ticks? Many snakes help keep rodent populations in check. Garter snakes, sometimes referred to as garden snakes, are a gardener’s best friend. This little snake keeps insects from devouring your garden goods! 

Snakes on a plane? If you suffer from ophidiophobia, (AKA: When you see a snake your initial reaction is…NOPE!), we suggest slipping into the Day Exhibit and checking out the vine snakes, these innocuous little darlings are well suited for any beginning herpetologist.

Or you can start with this adorable baby pit viper.

This baby pit viper wants to school you. Lesson? Snakes are not monsters, although they do steal pencils. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

Monday, October 13, 2014

It's National Vet Tech Week

Posted by: Dr. Darin Collins, DVM, Director, Animal Health



The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America has proclaimed October 12-18, 2014 to be National Veterinary Technician Week.

Please join me in celebrating this week and share with Woodland Park Zoo's veterinary technicians, Harmony, Linda, Teri, Barb and Kimberly, how much you appreciate them and their work!

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Our Woodland Park Zoo veterinary technicians have over a 100 years of combined professional work experience. They are licensed professionals having graduated from accredited programs, and are members of their professional organization. Our technicians are highly trained in the latest medical advances and skilled at working alongside the zoo veterinarians to give all our zoo patients the best medical care possible.

Being a zoo veterinary technician is a lifelong learning process through continuing education, and day-to-day work where they must uphold the highest of ethical standards and provide for the humane and compassionate care of every zoo species.

Veterinary Technicians were essential to the lion cub exams in 2013.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

If compared to human medicine, veterinary technicians perform many of the known medical positions all wrapped up into one and on all the zoo’s different species. As a zoo veterinary technician, they must know anatomy, physiology, microbiology, clinical techniques, pharmacology, anesthesiology, surgical and medical nursing, radiology, and clinical pathology training.

Each one of them does the seemingly impossible every day, all year round, here at the zoo. They are key to our ability to deliver the best possible care to our zoo animal patients. As the zoo's veterinarians, Dr. Kelly Helmick and I could not do our work without them!

Thanks, Harmony, Linda, Teri, Barb and Kimberly. Enjoy your week—you deserve it!

To the budding veterinarians and veterinarian technicians out there, explore more about a career in zoo animal health care.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why do snakes stick out their tongues?

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications


Ever wonder why snakes are always sticking out their tongues? Woodland Park Zoo volunteer, Jordan, asked some of the zoo’s most curious visitors to explain…and their answers were pretty impressive! It's hard to trick the smartest zoo kids in the world.


All snakes have a vomeronasal organ, sometimes referred to as the Jacobson’s organ. This special auxiliary olfactory organ, located on the roof of the snake’s mouth, allows tiny chemical particles to be interpreted by the snake’s brain. A lightning fast exchange, the tongue finds these particles from the air, water or ground and delivers them to the Jacobson’s organ. The organ then supplies this information to the brain which interprets the message and the snake reacts accordingly.

A snake’s vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ, sits inside the roof of the mouth. A snake’s forked tongue assists in this adaptation by fitting snuggly into the organ, the perfect delivery system for chemical stimuli.

This ball python shows off its forked tongue as it checks out the camera lens. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

While snakes and reptiles flick this chemical stimulus into their mouth, most all mammals have a vomeronasal organ that assists the animals in detecting minute chemical scents. In cats the organ is stimulated when the cat exhibits the Flehmen reaction, sort of a sneer or curling of their lips.

Some studies suggest that humans might use this organ to detect pheromones from other people, potential mates or potential bad dates, but less is known about its function in humans. This function could be the answer to some behavioral preferences in people, but very little is known about its usefulness.

Snakes have a special shape in their lips that allows their tongue to constantly taste the air without having to open their mouth. This reticulated python in the Day Exhibit is a great example. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Next time you visit the zoo, stop by the Day Exhibit and take a close look at the snakes. You’re sure to see this remarkable adaptation in action!

An endangered Aruba Island rattlesnake. A tiny flick of the tongue can tell a snake a whole lot about its environment. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Update: Learning more about Watoto



Watoto, photographed in June 2014. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

We have heard touching stories from so many of you about how Watoto impacted your lives, and we want to share the latest news to keep you informed on a subject we know is so close to your hearts. Following Watoto’s death in August, we have now received laboratory results that are helping us understand more about the loss of our 45-year-old female African elephant.

According to the zoo’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Darin Collins, the most relevant finding from the pathology report was the chronic, age-related arthritis in the elephant’s leg joints, which had been described during the post-mortem examination. Additional findings in other tissues examined, such as age-related changes in heart and muscles, were mild and within expected limits and were not life-threatening. There was no evidence of an infectious disease process, in the joints or in other tissues examined. In addition, the pathologist did not find any evidence for a herpesvirus infection.

“We don’t know if Watoto fell or lay down. My clinical assessment is that she was unable to stand back up, due to the joint disease,” said Collins. Falls in elderly animals, and people, can be caused by physical conditions, such as arthritis, that impair mobility or balance. “Unfortunately, the sequence of events that occurs when an elephant is down and unable to stand becomes life-threatening in less than a few hours’ time. When lying down, large-bodied animals cannot breathe normally due to massive weight impacting their lung cavity, decreasing blood flow to vital organs and nerves, and resulting in limb paralysis.”

During multiple attempts to get Watoto to her feet, several hourly blood draws that were taken to monitor her health status showed her overall condition was in swift decline, added Collins.

“We are not surprised by the pathologist’s findings, which are consistent with those of a geriatric animal. Watoto did not show any new health concerns and her behavior and appetite were normal in the days leading up to her death,” explained Collins.

The median life expectancy is 41 years for a female African elephant. (Cynthia J. Moss. The demography of an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) population in Amboseli, Kenya, J. Zool. Lond. (2001) 145-156).

On the morning of August 22, zookeepers reported that Watoto was lying on her side in the yard of the elephant exhibit, unable to move to an upright position, an unusual behavior for her. Our keepers and animal health staff made many attempts to successfully right Watoto to her feet with careful assistance of crane-like machinery. “Unfortunately, despite these attempts, Watoto was unable to stand on her own,” said Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Watoto simply didn’t have any more to give. We were faced with making the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her, and we made it with compassion and deep sadness.”

Collins noted that the incredibly difficult decision to humanely euthanize Watoto was by no means swift. The decision to euthanize an animal is made after consultation with appropriate animal collection staff. “We take every possible measure to ensure a sick or injured animal receives the best treatment and care possible. However, euthanasia may be the only humane option, especially for an aging animal that is deteriorating, like in Watoto’s situation,” said Collins.

Watoto was born in Kenya between 1969 and 1970, and joined Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant herd in 1971 as an orphan from the wild. She lived a long and interesting life, and loved to be playful with her keepers and zoo guests. Even in her later years, the geriatric elephant made a heartfelt impact on zoo visitors, staff and keepers, some of whom had the pleasure of caring for Watoto for more than three decades. Watoto was the only African elephant at Woodland Park Zoo, distinguishable by her large ears, saddle-shaped back and visible tusk. She was loved by all.

“We are very grateful to our community for the support they have shown us as we grieve the loss of Watoto. We will miss her regal presence and hope that people don’t forget her and the role she played as a champion for her cousins in the wild. We encourage people to continue honoring her memory by signing the 96 Elephants pledge to end the ivory trade and help save African elephants from extinction,” added Ramirez.

Zoo-goers can see the current members of the elephant herd at the award-winning Elephant Forest: females 47-year-old Bamboo and 35-year-old Chai, both Asian species.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sinus treatment continues for Vip

Posted by Caileigh Robertson, Communications
Back in his outdoor exhibit with his group, silverback Vip is breathing more freely since his successful sinus surgery. In late August, a team of ear, nose and throat specialists joined Woodland Park Zoo’s animal health team to clear Vip of sinus blockage caused by a severe sinus infection, and have continued working with our staff to monitor his progress since the surgery. After the procedure, and necessary days of rest and recovery, Vip’s healthy appetite and curious demeanor were welcome signs to his care team.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

To ensure Vip is on track for long-term success, our animal health team and consulting physicians will take a look at his improved sinus condition and clear any remaining blockage during a follow-up procedure this Saturday, October 4. Our animal health team has also called on the help of a local oral surgeon to give Vip a thorough dental evaluation during this weekend’s procedure. Although the aging silverback’s prognosis remains guarded, Vip’s positive response and recovery to the recent surgery is very encouraging. We’re optimistic for a positive outcome!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What I learned on my summer vacation (in Africa)

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Conservation/Advanced Inquiry Program Zoology student at Miami University of Ohio and Project Dragonfly



As I prepared for my trip to Namibia, all the images from childhood television shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Daktari flooded my mind. Would I see a cross-eyed lion? Would Marlin Perkins stand back while Jim went over to examine the deadly puff adder? It didn’t really matter; I was going to Africa—the place of my childhood (and adult!) dreams.

But this was no photo safari complete with luxury accommodations. This was an Earth Expedition to Namibia, part of Miami University of Ohio’s Project Dragonfly Master’s Degree program. I was going there to learn.

On the way to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

There was the requisite coursework like cheetah biology, community based conservation and education, and conservancy management, but what I really learned was something much more important: the wildlife we so closely associate with Africa is in serious decline.

Our base of operations was the Cheetah Conservation Fund just outside of Otjiwarongo.

Welcome to the Cheetah Conservation Fund Centre. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

We’d be staying in cinderblock dorms while we learned more about the loss of African species to human/wildlife conflict, human settlement, and poaching. Naturally, the first animal on our list was the cheetah. Today there are only 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild, having disappeared from more than 70% of their natural and historic range. Where the cheetah remains, it often finds itself in conflict, as it takes the blame for livestock losses and can be persecuted and killed by ranchers.

Dr. Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Fund specializes in working with local ranchers to use livestock guarding dogs to protect their herds, safely corralling herds at night as a preventative measure. When livestock losses do happen, CCF works with ranchers to investigate. Taking the time to observe the prints left behind on the scene or the remains of the attacked livestock can help determine who the real culprit is—and many times it’s not a cheetah. Through this process ranchers are learning to live with the cheetah, rather than fear and kill it.

Cheetah. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

A trip through Etosha National Park meant seeing the sort of wildlife I had been dreaming of. We were delighted as our bus slowed to give us a glimpse of our first rhino. Upon closer observation we noticed open wounds and extreme emaciation. Life would likely be short for this rhino, adding to their endangered status even more. To date, the black rhino has suffered a population drop of approximately 98% due to poaching for rhino horns. A talk with a former Etosha wildlife ranger confirmed my fears— even in the park animals are not safe these days; poachers will track them and take them wherever they can find them.

A healthy rhino at a watering hole. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

And then it finally happened—we saw an African elephant. And not just one elephant, but a small family group with a very sassy youngster in the lead. It was magical. Standing just to the side of our bus was a small herd of the largest land animal.

African elephant family. Photo by Monica Ackerley.

And then it hit me—100,000 elephants had lost their lives in the past three years to poachers. This small family, so proud and strong, may not be here in the next 10-15 years. And not just this family group, the way things are going, unless poaching is stopped, African elephants could become extinct in the wild in my lifetime. And that is when the tears began to flow, and I thought about the conservationist Cynthia Moss and her statement, “We are going to lose the largest animal on earth just so people can have trinkets.”

The little elephant was filled with personality. Photo by Kendra Hodgson.

But there is hope. Zoos are working hard to educate visitors about the realities of life in the wild. Like they say, it’s a jungle out there and life in the wild is not always pretty. Seeing an animal up close really does create a bond and builds a connection making you want to take action. Knowing and loving the animals we care for in the zoo made seeing them in the wild even more powerful, and reinforced how critically important it is to make sure we are taking steps to save them.

And for elephants (and rhinos), it’s critical that we act now. Through the 96 Elephants campaign, we’re shining a light on the illegal poaching of elephants for ivory. If you haven’t already, please lend your support to the campaign by adding your name.

Finally, human/wildlife conflict doesn't just happen in faraway countries. The issues that livestock ranchers in Africa have with big cats are very much the same issues ranchers in Washington state have with wolves. Taking lessons learned in other countries, where they’re making peaceful coexistence work, and applying it to what we do here in the states is a critical next step in protecting our environment and the species that live in it.

Life at the waterhole. Photo by Monica Ackerley.

Africa was not only the place of my dreams, it is now permanently in my heart. If I walked away with anything, it is the profound meaning of this Namibian proverb:

The earth is not ours; it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations.” 

Nothing could be truer.