Thursday, July 31, 2014

Happy first birthday, Misawa!

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor


As giraffe calf Misawa nears his first birthday, coming up on August 6, we look back at a year of firsts for our not-so-little guy.

The first look 

Misawa at one day old. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Everyone remembers the first photo we shared of Seattle’s tallest baby—the infamous “grumpy” look on his face turned Misawa into a viral sensation. But in truth, the very first look at Misawa we got was in the incredible footage of his birth!

Mom Olivia gave birth to the 6-foot-tall giraffe on August 6 at 7:03 p.m. The labor lasted about 1.5 hours and the video shows little Misawa finding his feet and standing for the first time just 1.5 hours after he was born!



The first day outside 

The first few days were spent nursing and bonding with mom inside the Giraffe Barn, but it wasn’t long before Misawa ventured into the outdoor area of the barn. Mom Olivia and Aunt Tufani were never too far from his side—and often right on top of him!

Mom Olivia and Aunt Tufani giving Misawa some TLC. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The first taste 

Though he was still nursing from mom, Misawa began to sample hay, grain and leaves to get a taste for the giraffe’s natural browser diet. Then he got a taste of getting a taste. You know, like going head first into a feed bucket only to get his head momentarily stuck, or letting his tongue do the investigating when he spotted the webcam secured in the corner of the barn:



The first big adventure 

A young Misawa on his first savanna exploration. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

At around 7 feet tall and nearly three months old, Misawa was ready to begin exploring the vast savanna exhibit. Though he stayed close to mom’s side at first, he grew more and more venturous with time. Soon he was ready to meet his neighbors that share the savanna—zebra, oryx, gazelle and ostrich.

When it comes to the other animals in the exhibit, Misawa has grown from cautious to curious to affectionate, often showing way more interest in them than they show in return!

Here he is checking out the oryx:

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

And checking out the ostrich:

Photo by Stan Milkowski/Woodland Park Zoo.

The first friend 

For most of his young life, Misawa has been part of a tight knit herd of three—Misawa, mom Olivia and Aunt Tufani. But boy has Misawa found room in his life for his newest and bestest friend—Dave!

Photo by Stan Milkowski/Woodland Park Zoo.

Nearly two-year-old Dave arrived from Brookfield Zoo to join our herd this spring, and Misawa has been absolutely taken with his new playmate. Dave had a younger sibling at Brookfield and knows how to deal with eager little buddies, so he’s doing a great job of taking Misawa’s affectionate licks and head rubs. Like any friends, sometimes Dave wants his space, but the two ultimately get along well and are settling into a comfortable new herd dynamic.

Misawa giving Dave a head rub. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

The first birthday 

Misawa wears his party hat (while eating out of a second one). Photo by Katie Ahl/Woodland Park Zoo.

Misawa’s first birthday is coming up on August 6 and he’s ready for the extra attention! Looking dapper in his party hat, he posed for this photo for us so we can start the celebration. We’d love for you to sign his birthday card by leaving a comment here. We'll compile all the birthday notes from here and our Facebook page for the zookeepers.

To get things started, Misawa's keepers have their own special birthday note to share:
Misawa, 
Happy birthday little guy! 
You’ve grown up so fast and you have lots more growing to do. We’re so happy to be a part of your first year at the zoo. Here’s to many more fun days on the savanna with all the browse and sunshine you could want. 
- From all your loving savanna keepers!

Aunt Tufani gets in on the birthday fun while Misawa looks on. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo.

Then come wish Misawa a happy birthday in person! Misawa will be hanging out at the giraffe feedings on August 6 from 10:00 - 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. ($5 per person, cash only; please note feedings may be interrupted or canceled without notice because of weather or animal appetites).

To mark this special occasion, you can become a ZooParent and adopt a giraffe today! Your adoption fee will help care for the animals at the zoo like Misawa and his herd. Plus, $5 of your adoption fee will go directly to support Woodland Park Zoo’s field conservation efforts like the Tarangire Elephant Project working to protect savanna habitat for giraffes, elephants and their wild neighbors.


Friday, July 25, 2014

How do you heal a sore goat?

Posted by: Gigi Allianic, Communications


Hot packs, ice treatment, massage, exercise ball, laser therapy…is this a physical therapy session? Close, but not for a human patient. These applications are part of a physical rehabilitation session for a domestic goat living at Woodland Park Zoo.

The goat, a 7-year-old male named Waldo, is undergoing physical rehabilitation to help alleviate pain and improve his range of motion. Last year, Waldo was becoming more reluctant to move and showing signs of front and rear limb weakness. Following a thorough assessment by the zoo’s animal health team, which revealed compressed disks in his neck and lumbar spine, the goat was put on a physical rehabilitation program as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.


Video: Goat. Laser beams. Yoga ball. Produced by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

At the zoo, physical rehabilitation is used to help alleviate discomfort from an injury or surgical treatment, to improve circulation or range of motion and coordination, and to enhance life quality. It is particularly beneficial for treating age-related changes such as arthritis and can help reduce the need or amount of other medications.

Waldo is currently under a prescribed program of massage, stretching, weight shifting on an exercise ball, laser therapy, and ice (cryotherapy) and heat (thermotherapy) treatments. The zoo’s senior veterinary technician, Harmony Frazier, and the goat’s lead keeper, Diane Abbey, lead the rehab team for Waldo and apply physical rehab a few times a week in hourly sessions. Cavaletti rails, designed to help promote muscle strength and coordination in dogs, are also used for the goat. “It’s the equivalent of hurdles for the four-legged,” said Frazier.

A goat in a coat. Photo by Harmony Frazier/Woodland Park Zoo.

One of the zoo’s veterinary technicians even made a custom apron for the goat, designed specifically to hold ice or heat packs to lie over the goat’s targeted muscle groups, lumbar and shoulders.

As a result of the rehab sessions combined with comprehensive medical care, Waldo has made remarkable and positive progress, said Frazier. Initially, Waldo was reluctant to stand. Within the first week of rehab, his attitude changed remarkably. “He became very engaged and alert. The attention on him has had a very positive effect. The sessions clearly changed his perception and increased his motivation. While his condition is permanent and likely to become progressive, he will continue to be assessed on a regular basis and all components of his treatment, including physical rehab, will be adjusted as needed to maintain his health quality,” explained Frazier.

Physical rehabilitation has long been used on human patients but is relatively new for animals in zoos, noted Frazier, who last year became certified in veterinary physical rehabilitation at the University of Tennessee Veterinary School. Frazier also was the first veterinary technician in a zoo to become a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner and, most recently, became nationally certified in animal massage. “Most veterinary technicians have had cases where they have performed some form of rehab therapy but I had an interest in understanding what is actually happening within the tissues and body systems so I can better apply these modalities to enhance the welfare of exotic animals,” said Frazier. “Taking these courses allows me to translate this discipline to the animals living at our zoo and improving the quality of their lives.”

Waldo's physical rehab team. Photo courtesy of Harmony Frazier/Woodland Park Zoo.

Other animals that have received physical rehab techniques at the zoo include a penguin, gorilla, opossum, snowy owl, flamingo, patas monkey, an arctic fox, an elephant, western pond turtles and numerous waterfowl. “By combining training techniques with physical rehab, we have numerous possibilities ahead of us for helping our animals lead even better lives,” added Frazier.

Waldo lives in the zoo’s Family Farm where children can meet him up close in the Contact Area. “He’s so good with the kids,” said Abbey. “It’s rewarding to do something for him in return.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Young zookeeper in training

Posted by: Caileigh Robertson, Communications


Sure, the plaque is nice. But the real prize in receiving the Future Zookeeper Award for 9-year-old Karina is the official Woodland Park Zoo name badge that reads simply, "Karina, Future Zookeeper." Her eyes lit up when she received this badge of honor at yesterday's annual zookeeper picnic, part of the zoo's National Zookeeper Week celebrations.

Although shy at first, Karina beamed with excitement upon receiving her personalized zoo name badge from zookeeper Russ Roach. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Many of the most memorable visitor experiences at Woodland Park Zoo come from connecting with the animals we've grown to know and love. It’s where Karina’s adoration for elephants took hold nearly seven years ago and, to her surprise, where an unlikely friendship continues to grow with every return to the zoo's Elephant Forest.

Karina as a youngster watching after her favorite animals at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Julie Foree.

Often overshadowed by the magnificence of our trunked trio is a dedicated team of keepers that care for our elephants day in and day out—but their commitment is never overlooked by Karina. It’s her connection to our keepers that makes her a part of the herd, most notably the friendship she’s found in elephant keeper Russ Roach. Karina and her family first met Russ in 2007 during one of our popular elephant keeper talks. Inspired by Russ and his wealth of knowledge about Watoto, Bamboo and Chai, Karina took it upon herself to learn as much as possible about her favorite three residents at Woodland Park Zoo and soon became a young ambassador for the animal she treasures most.

As an ambassador for elephants worldwide, Karina has received many school and community awards for her creativity and conservation efforts. Great work, Karina! Photos by Julie Foree.

Her frequent visits, endless curiosity, and great affection for our herd make Karina well-known among keepers at the elephant barn. But earlier this month, Karina was introduced to a new elephant keeper being trained at the zoo. Uncertain why she hadn’t been considered for the job, Karina reached out to Russ who playfully encouraged her to drop off her résumé for future openings. She returned with her résumé in hand, boasting a lengthy list of reasons why there’s no better person for the job.

A copy of Karina's résumé.

Karina has looked to Russ over her many years of zoo visits to understand the great responsibilities that come with caring for elephants, including morning baths, training sessions, exhibit up-keep, and of course, scooping poop. But not even the dirtiest work keeps Karina from envisioning the irreplaceable reward of a career in zookeeping. The constant interaction Russ and the keepers have with Watoto, Bamboo and Chai builds a strong bond among the herd, of both humans and elephants. To Karina, Russ’s 24-year career as a Woodland Park Zoo elephant keeper is a testament to that, and a future she very clearly imagines for herself.

Russ leading Karina and younger sister Makenzie behind the Elephant Forest exhibit area (left). No stranger to the Elephant Barn, Karina's name makes the list as "Future Keeper" (right). Photos by Julie Foree.

Walking side by side through the elephant barn, the admiration Karina holds for Russ is as evident as her affection for the animals in his care. She patiently watches with her sisters as Russ moves through his daily keeper routine, but it’s not long before the girls are pleading to help scrub the barn floors. Donning her Future Zookeeper name badge, Karina gets right to work with her gleeful sisters. There’s not a shadow of doubt she’ll rise to the ranks of a Woodland Park Zoo keeper one day and follow in the footsteps of a most cherished friend, her favorite zookeeper Russ.

Karina gifting her award-winning artwork to keeper Russ (left). Karina volunteering her assistance in her favorite place, the Elephant Barn (right). Photos by Julie Foree.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Together we can end the ivory trade in Washington state

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor


End the ivory trade before it ends elephants.

To stop the slaughter of elephants, we must stop the trade. To stop the trade, we must end the demand. Watch this video to see what's at stake:

Click to play video.

It's time to raise your voice and let Washington state leaders know you pledge never to buy, sell or trade ivory, and you want a moratorium on ivory sales here. Add your name to the list of thousands speaking up for wild elephants. Then on August 12—World Elephant Day—we'll deliver your pledges to our state leaders to make a big impression. Thank you!



Video produced by Rebecca Whitham, elephant photo courtesy of Mustafa Hassanali/Tarangire Elephant Project, music by Tchakare Kanyembe.

Monday, July 21, 2014

10 Gorillas, 3 Groups, 2 Exhibits

Posted by: Stephanie Payne, Zookeeper


With 10 gorillas making up three social groups living in two on-view exhibits, it can be challenging for visitors to keep up with the gorillas at Woodland Park Zoo—especially with all the moves and changes over the last few years.

Several of the changes were influenced by recommendations from the national gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), a group of gorilla specialists that makes breeding recommendations and gorilla transfers based on the genetic diversity and wellbeing of the approximately 340 gorillas in accredited North American zoos.

Let’s explore the dynamics of each of the gorilla groups to help you understand which gorilla is where and why. Then we’ll share tips on when and where to look for the gorillas to make the most of your visit.

We start with Group 1’s Nina and Pete—the bedrocks of Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla program.

Nina. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Silverback Pete (right). Photos by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Who is in Group 1?

Pete and Nina, our oldest gorillas and lifetime residents, currently occupy the largest exhibit, one that has been nicknamed the “retirement village” by keepers. Pete and Nina have spent a lifetime raising their own offspring (Wanto, Kamilah, Zuri and Alafia, who are all living elsewhere now), as well as being surrogate parents to Nadiri and Akenji when their mother, Jumoke, was unable to raise them. Pete and Nina are also grandparents to thirteen grandchildren that live throughout the United States. These two enjoy spending time in the shelter and you often will see them with the soft, fleece blankets that the zoo and generous donors provide them.

This exhibit used to be the home of a much larger group: Pete, Nina, Naku, Akenji, Nadiri and Alafia. Based on the SSP recommendations, Alafia is now living in sunny Los Angeles, and has a very good relationship with her new silverback, Kelly.

Naku is now in Milwaukee and just delivered her first baby in early March. Unfortunately, the infant did not survive due to a respiratory infection, but we are relieved that Naku cared for the baby. She was doing everything that a mother gorilla should do. As a result, we expect that she will raise any future babies successfully.

Nadiri and Akenji are both still at WPZ, but have been living in our outdoor, off-view exhibit as we’ve focused on creating a new group with our newest silverback, Leo (Still with me? I’ll revisit this later!)

When and Where Can I See Group 1?

For now, Pete and Nina can be seen daily in the West exhibit (the one closer to Jaguar Cove on the Tropical Rain Forest loop). If you’re lucky, Pete will be wearing his fleece chapeau and Nina will have her tongue out, both signs that they are fully relaxed!

Who is in Group 2?

Group 2 is composed of Leo, Akenji and Nadiri. This group currently spends a portion of the day in an outdoor exhibit that is off public view, but they can usually be observed in the East exhibit in the afternoon.   

Silverback Leonel. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Leo, our newest silverback, came to WPZ from Granby Zoo in Quebec in 2008, with the hope that he would socialize well with our two adult females, Nadiri and Akenji. He had never lived successfully with other gorillas for an extended length of time, and we felt that Nadiri and Akenji’s personalities would suit this somewhat socially challenged individual. After a long and careful introduction, the trio did indeed become a cohesive group.

Our further hope, that Leo would successfully breed with Nadiri, proved to be in vain. Despite SSP recommendation, genetics are only the beginning; gorillas need to actually like and accept one another in order to successfully breed, and Leo made it clear from the beginning that he preferred the more forward Akenji over less confident Nadiri. Having been hand raised by humans, Leo seems to be a bit amiss when it comes to proper breeding behavior. We’re hoping that Leo’s attraction to Akenji will result in Akenji’s first pregnancy and that he figures it out soon, as he is the only viable breeding option for Akenji here at the zoo. She is related to our other two silverbacks (Group 1’s Pete is her grandfather and Group 3’s Vip is her father).

Akenji. Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

While they are a successful social group, the challenge of getting Nadiri pregnant still remains. Nadiri is eighteen and the only living offspring of her father, Congo, who was a genetic founder, or, a wild born gorilla. She is nulliparous (has never become pregnant) and is genetically underrepresented in the captive population. The combination of her age and underrepresented genes makes her breeding status a priority for the keepers. 

We are all attuned to the ticking of her biological clock.

Which brings us to …

Who is in Group 3?

This family group is our most dynamic, as it includes our youngest gorilla, 7-year-old Uzumma, who is not shy about tormenting the more mellow gorillas in the group with her gregarious personality. She shares the East exhibit with her father, Vip; her mother, Amanda; her older sister, Calaya, and an unrelated female, Jumoke.

Introducing the females of Vip's group:

Calaya. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Jumoke. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Amanda. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Uzumma. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Vip has sired six females at WPZ since his arrival in 1996: Monifa and Akenji with Jumoke; Naku with Alafia; Ngozi, Calaya and Uzumma with Amanda. When it became apparent that Leo and Nadiri were not interested in one another, Vip became the last viable option. This involved a lot of discussion, planning and strategizing, as bringing these two together for daily visits would necessitate keeping Vip inside while the females in his group went into their day exhibit, as well as asking Nadiri, already a self-conscious and suspicious girl, to shift into a holding area with a silverback that she had only seen in the distance.

Silverback Vip. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

After months of careful and cautious introductions, directed by the interest and willingness of Nadiri and Vip, we have established a daily visitation routine, which typically lasts approximately 2 hours in the morning but extends all day during Nadiri’s estrous period, when she is more likely to be receptive to Vip and become pregnant.

When and Where Can I See Groups 2 and 3? 

Keeping in mind that the gorilla schedule is always being tweaked a bit depending on the complex social needs of these apes, we do have some tips for the best times to look for each group in the East exhibit.Visitors who arrive at the East exhibit before 11:00 a.m. may likely see only the females of Group 3 on exhibit. Vip rejoins the females usually between 10:30-11:30 a.m., depending on when his visit with Nadiri is finished that morning.

Often, Leo’s Group 2 then rotates onto view in the East exhibit in the afternoon. When one group goes on view in the East exhibit, the other group rotates to the outdoor, off-view exhibit (which the gorillas really enjoy).

Leonel on exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Are There More Changes Coming?

Our goal is always to create a dynamic environment that encourages natural behavior, which means there will no doubt be further changes on the horizon. But for now, you can look for Group 1 in the West exhibit and either Group 2 or 3 in the East exhibit.

Hopefully things won’t have changed again before your next visit, but if they have, you can be assured that any changes made are in the gorilla’s best interests. Always feel free to ask a keeper if you have any questions about the groups, or check our blog for further updates.

Enjoy your visit and please take some time to observe the beautiful gorilla ambassadors that we are fortunate enough to have living among us here in Seattle!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Celebrating 41 penguin chicks

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor


This is the 40th penguin chick hatched at Woodland Park Zoo since 2010, seen here at 45 days old. Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Our Humboldt penguins are a prolific bunch. Since 2010—the first breeding season in their new exhibit—our colony has produced 41 chicks! Earlier in the season, we were counting up eggs (yes, before they hatched) and got excited when we realized we were going to reach an historic 40th hatching. And though we love our round numbers, we won’t complain that one more egg was laid and number 41 came along at the end of May.

Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

This season alone, we had nine chicks hatch, with six already fledged and out on exhibit, and the three youngest—numbers 39, 40 and 41—still on the nest with their parents. These hatchings are all part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP) conservation breeding program across Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited zoos. Zoos work together through the SSP to maintain the genetic diversity and demographic health for this vulnerable species. With 41 healthy hatchings in just 4 years, Woodland Park Zoo is one of the most successful participants in the SSP program!

Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

We joined zookeeper Celine Pardo for a weigh-in session with the 40th chick at 45 days old. This little one already has a great rapport with Celine. The keepers spend time with the hatchlings each day to get them used to handling and eating fish. The chicks are regularly weighed to make sure they are hitting their growth benchmarks. At 2.58 kg (5.7 lb.), number 40 is healthy and right on track.

On the scale. Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Weigh-ins continue through adulthood for Woodland Park Zoo’s penguins—keepers weigh each penguin once a month to track their health. We’re also able to keep a close eye on how the birds are doing by hand feeding them every day. This way we can make sure that each individual is getting their nutritional fill (about two pounds of fish each day, plus vitamins), and we can spot early on if any individual is showing a loss of appetite.

Photo by John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo.

Wrangling a whole colony of penguins for feedings and weigh-ins is a lot of work for the zookeepers. Now imagine how challenging it might be for conservationists working out in the field who want to weigh wild penguins to track the health of threatened populations. Not surprisingly, it’s even more complex!

Zookeeper Celine hand-feeds each penguin on exhibit. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Through our Wildlife Survival Fund, Woodland Park Zoo supports the work of the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels at the University of Washington. When the Center’s Dr. Dee Boersma and her team were investigating non-invasive ways to weigh wild penguins as the birds go to and from their nests, Woodland Park Zoo keepers were able to help test scale designs with the penguins here in Seattle, who proved to be very helpful “research assistants.”

The Center shares with us this great video shot in Punta Tombo, Argentina to see how the scales are working out in the field:

VIDEO: The Weight of a Penguin. Credit: Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.

As the work continues in the field to study and protect threatened penguin species, the birds here at Woodland Park Zoo help visitors connect with the story of their imperiled populations. Each hatching we have celebrated at Woodland Park Zoo represents the next generation of conservation ambassadors and “research assistants.”

To help us continue the great care of penguins at Woodland Park Zoo and support conservation research and action in the field, you can adopt a penguin and become a ZooParent today!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rose Garden teeming with color

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by Kirsten Pisto/Woodland Park Zoo


One of Woodland Park Zoo’s not-so-secret spaces is actually adjacent to the zoo itself, the WoodlandPark Rose Garden. Established as a civic garden in 1922, the 2.5 acre space is cared for and kept by the zoo’s horticulture staff and our Lead Rose Gardener and rose-master, Matt Manion. The garden hosts nearly 200 varieties of roses, showcasing those that thrive in the Pacific Northwest climate.

Showing our appreciation for our dedicated horticulture crew!

Since 2006, the Rose Garden has been pesticide free. Pesticides pollute through rain runoff in Seattle, making it all the way to Puget Sound. Plus, we like to treat our animals to roses, and we wouldn't want them ingesting those toxins. Using the natural approach means building healthy soils, practicing smart watering and planting disease-resistant varieties. 

Matt says that these sustainable methods will work well in your own garden too. This time of year, he suggests that rose aficionados spend time dead-heading their plants. Summer pruning (referred to as dead-heading) keeps rose plants blooming throughout the season. Dead-heading removes withering flowers from a rose bush so that the hips do not form. By diverting energy that would be used for hip development, the plant can focus on producing new flowers. You can learn more about rose care and sustainable gardening by visiting the garden.

We took a summer stroll through the aisles of 3,000 roses and found just a few to share with you here.

A David Austen rose type, Grace has a particularly fruity scent.
An All American Rose Selection, this Hybrid Tea rose is called Whisper.
Diana Princess of Wales, shows off its beautiful blushing petals. This Hybrid Tea rose is a tribute to"England's Rose"the beloved Royal Princess.
Double Delight, another All American Rose Selection, is a Grandiflora rose with brilliant colors.

A rose by any other name? With countless varieties of roses, the names of each cultivar are extensive, creative and sometimes humorous. Rose cultivars can be descriptive, referencing color, scent or taste, but some names allude to fictional characters, pop culture or even a favorite pet.

Senior gardener Matt Manion works on some summer pruning. With 2.5 acres of rose beds, the rose garden keeps our hort crew busy! Some of the not-so-pretty roses are given to our residents, such as gorillas or bears, who are more than pleased to gobble them up.
Taboo, a luscious red Hybrid Tea rose.

The Woodland Park Zoo rose garden is open from 7:00 a.m. until dusk every day of the year. The garden sits outside zoo gates and entry is free to visitors.

Ballerina, a Hybrid Musk rose is teeming with delicate, pearly pink petals.
Honey Bouquet, a Floribunda beauty.
Lagerfeld, a  pale violet Grandiflora introduced in 1986 is named after a famous designer, can you guess who?
Betty Boop, a gorgeous All American Rose Selection Grandiflora rose... as fragrant as it is beautiful. We really need to work on the digital scent technology aspect of this blog!

Don't forget to stop and smell the roses on your way to the zoo!

Friday, July 11, 2014

How Towan gave “Rise” to Maurice the orangutan

Posted by: Andy Antilla, Zookeeper


Woodland Park Zoo’s Towan inspired much of the orangutan character, Maurice, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

For those of us who work with Towan, the oldest male orangutan in North America, we've always known that he's a special guy. Now, people all around the world will see much of his personality come to life on the big screen when “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” hits theaters this month. That’s because Karin Konoval, the actor who plays Maurice the orangutan in the new Planet of the Apes films, studied and drew her inspiration from our big guy.

Maurice the orangutan in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

At 46 years old, Towan and his twin sister Chinta have lived their entire lives at Woodland Park Zoo. They were both hand-raised by humans and show great interest in people, especially the regular visitors that come to see them in the zoo’s Trail of Vines exhibit.

Towan checks out a young visitor. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Actor Karin Konoval is one of those regular visitors. It’s easy to see why she and others are drawn to Towan. He is wise, strong willed, enjoys attention, loves to manipulate objects, and is also artistic. For many years he's been given paint and canvas or sidewalk chalk and paper, and he spends quite a bit of time working away at his given medium. You can see the wheels turning (so to speak) as he studies a canvas, paper, or even parts of his exhibit and colors them with delight.

Actor Karin Konoval, courtesy of the actor.

The Vancouver, Canada actor began visiting Woodland Park Zoo in 2010 to study the orangutans, and she has been regularly connecting with the keepers since 2011. Before we even knew that Towan played a pivotal role in the development of Karin’s Maurice character in the first film, the Lead Keeper of Primates commented after seeing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” that the male orangutan in the movie "reminds me so much of Towan."

We asked Karin to chat with us about her role as Maurice in the Planet of the Apes films and what she has learned in developing this character.

Interview with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actor Karin Konoval

Can you explain how you are morphed into an orangutan on the big screen? 
KK: Maurice comes to life on the big screen through a process called "performance capture." What this means is: as an actor I deliver the full performance of him just as I would with any human character—his physical movement, thoughts, choices, facial expressions, voice. During filming I wear a gray body suit rigged with sensors that track the movement of every part of my body, a helmet camera that tracks my facial expressions in meticulous detail, and a sound microphone. In post-production Weta Digital renders the "digital makeup" of Maurice over my performance. Weta Digital is entirely involved throughout filming and the technical process of performance capture is incredibly sophisticated—in the technology used, expert technicians involved at every moment, and the expert minds overseeing from start to finish. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was filmed in all the locations as you see them in the film, i.e., not in front of a green screen. We also filmed in extremely challenging environments: rain, mud, in a lake, on steep hillsides, on horseback, etc. 


Karin Konoval as Maurice in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

What did you learn from Towan about orangutans and what part of him can we see in Maurice? 
KK: Towan gave me what I can only describe as the "key" to Maurice.  Before I met him the first step for me as an actor on my learning journey to portray a mature male orangutan was to read every book and watch every video about orangutans I could find, absorbing as much as I could of their physicality, behavior and energy. I spent weeks practicing on quadrupedal arm stilts, climbing things, eating like an orangutan and practicing long calls in the shower. Towan wasn't the first orangutan I met. That was Bruno in Los Angeles, who became feisty and impatient with me, and the feistier he became the more he gave me to bring into Maurice. Filming for "Rise" had already begun at the end of July 2010 when I still felt like I was all in bits and pieces with my portrayal of Maurice—like I was missing something. One day I saw a video of Towan painting, which intrigued me because I'm a painter too. So I came to Woodland Park Zoo. I sat down at a window to watch Towan—he was about ten feet away from me with a burlap blanket over his head. Every once in a while a corner of the blanket would poke up and he'd peek at me. Then suddenly: he tossed off the blanket and leapt to the window to press his face to mine. For twenty minutes his eyes studied up and down my face. And in that time, somehow, Towan gave me the magic key to Maurice. I can't explain it better than that. Whatever he gave me was far richer than I could describe in words. 


Towan painting. Photo by Carolyn Sellar/Woodland Park Zoo.

What behaviors that we see in your character Maurice have you picked up from other orangutans over the years? 
KK: That's a fun question to consider. I've spent a fair amount of time visiting with [Woodland Park Zoo’s] Towan, Melati, Chinta, Heran and Bela over the past three years and they are constantly surprising me with their individual interests, behavior, and unique ways of communicating. By the time filming of "Dawn" began I had a wealth of knowledge to call upon that I didn't have going into "Rise." There are many things I've observed in them that I brought into my performance of Maurice. The way Chinta sometimes applauds when I get out the paints—a happy "clap clap" of her hands. The way Melati points at colors she wishes me to use when I'm painting, or shakes her head no to a color, or shrugs her indifference. The way Towan draws with chalk, and "crutch walks" down a hill. The way Heran plants himself when hyper alert or making a stand. The way he excitedly bangs his hands on the ground after filling a tub with hay or delighting himself with some activity. The way I've seen Melati gently reach out and put her hand on his shoulder. Heran is Melati's son, and I've witnessed very dear moments between them. The way each of them eats, the way each of them watches. Towan's and Heran's long calls, which I've put a great deal of effort into getting into my/Maurice's voice for his more excitable moments. Other gentle breathing sounds that I've heard sporadically from Towan, and barks from Melati. I also spent time with four orangutans at Zoo Atlanta last May, Chantek, Nicky, Alan and Biji. They each moved me deeply in different ways, and elements of Alan's and Biji's personalities had an effect on my portrayal of Maurice too. Chantek can communicate through sign language, and to my delight he and I had two very brief sign language exchanges that also influenced me. But it's what I've absorbed of Towan's incredible "all-seeing" presence and stillness that's at the heart of Maurice. 


Karin also drew inspiration from other orangutans, like sweet natured Chinta, Towan’s twin sister. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

How has playing an orangutan differed from your other acting roles? 
KK:  In one way, it's no different at all. As an actor I approach each character I play with the same intent: find the character's integrity of mind, spirit, action. Tell the story, find my place in it. To find the integrity of Maurice as a character has been no different than finding the integrity of any human character. That said, the fact that he's a mature male orangutan has made it one of the most challenging and rewarding roles I've ever played. There's a special quality to him. To enter the state of mind of a character like Maurice is to embrace a quietness, a solitude, a listening and watchfulness. It's a refreshing state of mind to enter and maintain as an actor. 

Towan watches actor Karin Konoval get creative. Photo courtesy the actor.

What interests you most about orangutans?
KK: That's a question I've been asking myself for four years. The moment I first looked at a picture of an orangutan in a book in June 2010 I had a visceral reaction to it, an inexplicable something-shifting-inside-me reaction. This was before the callback for what I didn't yet know was the role of Maurice. Since then, in my personal life and aside from any connection to the films,  I've felt compelled to get to know as much about orangutans as a species and in particular the incredible individuals I've had the chance to meet —Towan, Melati, Chinta, Heran, Bela, Alan, Biji, Chantek, Nicky, Rosie, Intan, Bruno. There are orangutan individuals I know only through pictures and stories who have captivated me too and I hope very much I'll have the chance to meet them. Linus at Center For Great Apes in Florida, for example. What is it about orangutans that fascinates me? I guess the best answer is whatever happened the first time I met Towan and he studied up and down my face. It's inexpressible—in words, at least. 


Towan. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

As a Woodland Park Zoo member, what is your favorite thing about visiting the zoo and the orangutans? 
KK: There's so much I love about visiting Woodland Park Zoo. The ongoing journey of getting to know Towan, Bela, Chinta, Heran and Melati is fascinating and rewarding. But there are many other aspects to my visits that I value greatly. I've had the chance to get to know the gorillas, and in particular love to visit with Nina and Pete every time I come. The welcome offered to me not just by the great orangutan staff but also by everyone working at gorillas. I've learned as much from the incredible human beings who work at Woodland Park as I have from the animals they care for—and look forward to reconnecting with them each visit every bit as much as with the orangutans. I've had the chance to meet the giraffes, sloth bears, lemurs, jaguars, elephants. Perhaps one of the most special things the orangutans have brought into my life is a fresh sense of perspective. A curiosity about, consideration of and respect for all other animal species, not just orangutans. 


Konoval has also spent time observing Nina and other gorillas at the zoo. Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

If you could share anything with the public about orangutans what would it be? 
KK: What comes first to mind is: gratitude. My personal gratitude to the orangutans I've met, and the people who work with and on behalf of them, for welcoming and guiding me into a world I was actively curious about but knew little of and has now become an enriching part of my life. That may sound like a non-answer but I mean it in a larger way: to spend time in the presence of an orangutan is a gift. They offer a living, breathing lesson in the value of quiet and stillness, listening, keen observation, patience. As individuals they are richly unique in character and in the three years I've been visiting Towan, Melati, Chinta, Heran and Bela they each keep surprising me in ways that make me realize I've barely begun to know them. The sophistication of their thinking and "considering" nature has made me in turn consider afresh, as I said above, the sentience of all other animal species. In my growing respect for orangutans I have a deeper sense of humility about myself as a human being, and a new perspective on the world. Whether others find the opportunity to experience this connection and opportunity to learn with orangutans or ANY other animal species, it's that experience that I'd most wish to share.


Melati comes in for a close up. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Are you involved in orangutan conservation?
KK: First, I'm so happy to be able to support Woodland Park Zoo's own conservation efforts through being an annual donor as a ZooParent since I became a member. In 2012 I had the opportunity to attend the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP) Conference in Portland, and to hear (among many other fine speakers) Dr. Ian Singleton speak on behalf of his work with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. In Sumatra orangutans are on the critically endangered list. I was deeply impressed by Dr. Singleton and so follow the work of SOCP. I also follow the work of Patti Ragan and the Center For Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida. They provide sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees retired or rescued from lives as performers, as pets, or in research situations. As an actor with firsthand experience in the potential for the technology of performance capture to end the use of great apes in entertainment, this is obviously an important issue to me. The Orangutan SSP has also proved an invaluable educational resource to me, and chair Lori Perkins and many other members have been so generous in their guidance, so I follow their work too. First and foremost I consider myself a lucky student of orangutans, and in anything I'm able to give in return it's simply a way of saying "thank you."

Woodland Park Zoo partners with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program to protect wild orangutan populations. Photo by Tim Laman.

As a zookeeper, I could see that the orangutans were instantly taken with Karin, and they continue to enjoy visiting with her through the glass.  Apes can tell if a person is comfortable around them and “ape people”—usually ape caretakers—have a special understanding of them. The orangutans recognize that. It was that same recognition that happened when Karin visited. I was baffled by it at first, but then quickly realized how Karin, the actor, had not followed a usual pathway to understand apes by working with them. She'd gained this understanding on her own by embodying an ape on screen.

Towan’s son, Heran. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

One important thing I've learned over the years is that while we have certain expectations of what orangutans are capable of thinking and doing, they constantly surprise us. As an actor and behaviorist, Karin was an open book when it came to what she thought orangutans were capable of. For me that's been the exciting part of getting to know her, watch as she learns more, and see that come alive on screen.

Karin on set as Maurice in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Maurice the orangutan is Karin Konoval, but he is also part Towan. Karin talks about not being able to describe what Towan gave to her, but to me it seems he shared the most important part: his self-assurance, his wisdom, and like all orangutans, his nature as a sentient being. 

A big thank you to Karin for taking time to answer our questions and for representing orangutans on the big screen. Come visit Towan and the orangutans at Woodland Park Zoo and see what they inspire in you!