Notes From the Zookeeper: Gratitude

I love my job. There are so many things to be grateful for.

The first call is the critically endangered Golden Dart Frog. The second call is a Bumblebee Dart Frog. I have played these calls back to them for fifteen minute stretches three times a day, five days a week for several weeks now. It gets them grooving.

  • Ingenuity and success. Bowers made of coconuts cut in half are recommended for breeding Dart Frogs. I only have one, and my Annulated Boa has commandeered it. So I made due with what I had – black snake hide-boxes set atop the lids from Chinese food takeout containers. And you know what? It worked!

These are just a few of the eggs hidden in the exhibit. If they hatch, Dad will carry them to a water source on his back. Check back in about 10 days days.

  • Hoses that don’t kink
  • Hoses that aren’t frozen
  • Brand-new hoses that save us from filling our rearing reservoir with a bucket in the cold
  • Guests that show up on bitter cold days because they love the zoo
  • A raise
  • Good water pressure
  • Disposable food storage containers. Seriously. We use these for everything from storing food to raising dart frog tadpoles. Thank you, Glad and Ziploc! Wanna sponsor a post?
  • When the youngsters start to figure out what they’re meant to do

Egyptian Tortoises (Testudo kleinmanni). He’s only seven, so he’s maybe not quite got the hang of it yet, but he’s trying!

  • Surprises. My female Chinese Crocodile Lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus) has babies every two years. So we thought. She had eleven babies last year. In December, she surprised me with eleven more. This species is critically endangered due to habitat destruction, fragmented populations (some groups have 10 or fewer adults, which isn’t sustainable), over-collection for the pet trade, and a long gestation period (9-14 months!) which combine to make population recovery difficult

Newborn Chinese Crocodile Lizard. It’s tiny until you think that there were ELEVEN of them all curled up in there!

  • This guy.

    Tex, wearing his best opuntia fruit lipstick.

  • When my snack drawer is full. Zookeeping is hungry business!
  • Hidden opportunities. In 2017, I got to volunteer at the Turtle Survival Center in SC, and I got to go to the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in Charleston. I also had a trip to Amphibian Management School. This year, I’m going to Amphibian Research School, and I have a lead on a trip to California.
  • Weird animals
  • Mossy Leaf-tail Gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) shortly after hatching

  • Guests who ask questions and are genuinely interested in learning more
  • The sense of wonder and amazement when guests finally see a well-camouflaged animal on exhibit
  • Plants. I just started two small green houses at work with cuttings to make some really interesting additions to exhibits
  • My iPod. A lot of what I do is solitary. It takes me 6-8 hours a week to maintain my aquatic exhibit. It’s great to have music to listen to. This year, I may expand to podcasts
  • Lowe’s. I love home improvement stores, and it gives me jollies to know where everything is
  • Toboggans and gloves. It’s cold out there!
  • Possibilities. We’re working on planning our new facility. It is going to be incredible and state-of-the-art. Stay tuned!

What are you grateful for? Today is the last day that the linkup is active. Want to participate? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Make a list of what you are grateful for. When the timer goes off, stop. Post, link.

From Dawn at Tales From the Motherland:

How to join in: write your own post and publish it. Copy the link from the post. Then click on the frog below, and follow the instructions to add your link. If you have any trouble, please let me know, and I’d be happy to help. I will also add a link to each post on my own blog post, as they are published. For extra fun, please add the hashtags #BloggersUnite and/or #50HappyThings… because, well, everyone loves a hashtag! The link-up expires January 15th at 11:59pm.

Click here to link




The Daily Post : Weathered

I haven’t tried the Daily Post in a number of years, but I was inspired by today’s theme: weathered. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put a zookeeper slant on it, though, would I?

Riverbanks Zoo has a herd of Galapagos Tortoises. We have Aldabra Tortoises at our zoo. These two species are a fascinating example of convergent evolution – animals that develop similar traits, but in different parts of the world. Galapagos Tortoises are found off the coast of Ecuador in South America, and Aldabs are found off the east coast of Africa in the Seychelles. They last shared a common ancestor about 20 million years ago. But they are so similar.

Here’s an Aldabra Giant Tortoise:

Big Al and his watermelon that was donated by a child. If I cut up the watermelon, it’s gone in 10 minutes. A whole watermelon gets shoved around for 5 hours.

Galapagos Tortoise in Riverbanks Zoo, SC

There are minor differences. Galapagos tortoises can get up to about 600lbs, depending on the subspecies, whereas Aldabs top out typically at 350. Though Big Al is a plus-sized model. He’s 525lbs. Galaps typically lack the little scale on their shell behind their neck, called a nuchal scute. Their shells vary, and some have really high arches at their necks to allow them to reach taller shrubs. And Galaps have a very round head by comparison to Aldabs, but you have to really know them to notice. My favorite difference is that Aldabs stretch out their necks to be scratched, while Galaps look straight up. ADORABLE!

The thing about both species is, they can live for, like, ever. Not really. Eventually they peter out, but they live a very, very long time. One animal died in 2006, and there were records on it going back 252 years, and it was a wild-caught animal. The oldest confirmed tortoise was 189 years old. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

Time takes its toll on all of us, tortoises included.

It’s like looking into the face of a dinosaur. Weathered.

Time, wind, and water wear us down. The scales on this Galapagos tortoise girl’s neck have worn smooth with time. Her shell, too, sports that lived-in look. She had a nice hole in her carapace (top shell) that is now a cozy home to a spider.

See the spider web? It was nice and fresh. The damage is purely cosmetic. Shells are tough!

She looks pretty good for her age, don’t you think? Just imagine, a century ago, she looked more like this:

Juvenile Galapagos Tortoise

This tortoise is under six months old, all shiny and pretty and new. There are plenty of growth rings in her shell, too. They are like trees. As they grow, they get new rings. The center of the ring is essentially dead shell, like our hair or fingernails, and the rings are fresh growth. This little baby is all bright-eyed and represents the future of her species.

And this girl? She’s bursting with history.

If this girl could talk…

What do you think of when you hear the word “weathered?” Show us your best photos. Join this week’s Daily Post.


Notes From the Zookeeper: Remember Meatball the Miracle Tortoise?

Remember this little guy? He is a tiny miracle of a Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) . His egg had been broken during excavation of the nest (we have to excavate them or the eggs will die), and his keeper had carefully replaced the broken bit of shell and hoped for the best. And out he came with only a small cosmetic defect in his shell.

Now Meatball is a year old, and my how he has grown!

Right before Christmas, guess what? Meatball had a baby brother!

Radiated Tortoise says it is going to have to odd, because it just…can’t…even…

The hatchling should be a male because it was incubated at a lower temperature – 84F. A temperature of 88F produces females. This minute difference in temperatures is one reason why climate change can have a devastating impact on a species. A few really hot summers can result in more females than males, which sounds great at first glance. But too many females in the breeding population can very rapidly reduce genetic diversity.

This baby popped out right before Christmas. What a great surprise! The eggs weren’t even expected to hatch for a few more weeks. We check eggs every morning and afternoon, because we never know for sure. It’s not like incubating bird eggs, where there is only a day or two of variability in expected hatch dates. There can be MONTHS of variability. Like now. SURPRISE!

Now, back to Meatball. It’s hard to see how much he has grown in the last year until you see him beside his new brother. So here ya go!

Meatball’s brother (so far nameless). He likes his collard-green plate more than his chopped greens and veggies.

And here are the two of them together.

Awww! Family portrait!

There are still a few more eggs in the incubator, and Mom and Dad have done such a good job making babies that they no longer have the recommendation to breed, so we will be getting a different pair to work with. If we fill up zoo holdings with animals that are closely related, there’s no room in captivity for genetic diversity. Most zoo animals only have a few offspring. It may be a little while before we have more baby Radiated Tortoises. That’s okay. They’re worth waiting for!

What’s exciting in your world? I want to know!


Notes From the Zookeeper: My Day in Pictures and a Mind-blowing video


Notes From the Zookeeper: Help!

Dear Mom,

I want to go home. I’m currently seven hours south of the ole homestead at the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in South Carolina. I get to spend the next three days learning all about countless species from experts the world over. Turtles? Yes. Studying up on them? Absolutely! School’s my jam! At a conference where I do not know a soul?  (insert needle-scratch) Ummm. People? I don’t do the whole human thing very well. I am shy, a little weird, and I have the social skilz of an octopus, minus the tentacles. Did I have tentacles when I was born, Mom?

This is me. Trying to blend in, or maybe just outright hide. My Patronus is an octopus.

I stepped out of the car into a city that smells of an odd mix of excrement and brackish water, and I was ready to turn around and go home. The brackish water I get. I’m right here on the coast. But poop? Why? Why the poop? I do not understand! I’m in the heart of the historical district. Is it historical poop? Maybe?

The hotel is a shack. Three room suites, valet parking, a mezzanine, thick walls where I can’t hear the neighbors scratching their bed bugs, maybe not even bed bugs. A shack. I will suffer through. But one of the bars of soap was already wet when I opened it, and that creeps me out more than a little. And everything from the soap to the lotion smells exactly the same.

Our opening event was at the South Carolina Aquarium. I had never been. It was all kinds of amazing. Let me show you.

There’s, like, this whole ocean and stuff!

I did make two friends right off the bat, Mom. Want to meet them?

And there were other cool things.

I found a drug store on my way back to the hotel, and I thought I should get some snacks because food is WAY too expensive here. $12 for hotel breakfast is way more than I want to spend. But I am a jinx, and as I was buying my stuff, the entire computer system shut down, and I had to stand at the register making awkward small talk with the cashier and manager for ten minutes. Ten long, painful, awful minutes.  Come and get me.

The TV is broken. At least the one in my bedroom is, and I don’t want to go to the living room. That’s too much trouble. I mean, the TV comes on, but it only gets crappy channels. There were these two pink people who were walking through the jungle. Did I mention they were nekkid? Why were they nekkid? I go hiking all the time, but always with my clothes on. Don’t these people know there are insects and other things you don’t want close to the tender parts? Am I missing something?

The alarm went off, and I’m still typing my letter. But I will get out of bed. I will. Eventually. I can do this, Mom. I can learn good stuff and make new friends and eat all my snacks so I’m not spending a billion dollars on breakfasts. I can do this. I can.

On second thought… there are two beds here. I should go try out the other one.





Notes From the Zookeeper: I Really Did It!

I went to Amphibian Management School back in February. Yes, that’s really a thing. Frog populations have declined rapidly over the last several years due to a number of factors – habitat destruction, globalization, climate change, pollution, etc. In the US alone, populations are declining at a rate of 3.7% per year, so an annual training class to help zookeepers care for these animals is very necessary. One day I’ll get my act together and share some cool things I did and learned, but today isn’t that day. Today is about sharing one thing.

Our curator told me that we’re acquiring some Tiger-legged Monkey Frogs (Phyllomedusa hypochondrialis).  I have never worked with this species before, but I am pretty stoked. Why wouldn’t I be?

Check this out! Who wouldn’t want a frog who can do this?


We aim for mixed-species exhibits wherever possible because animals in captivity often do better if we can mimic their eco-system. Imagine being alone in the world – no birds, no insect sounds, no fragrance of flowers or trees. Boring and stressful, right? I even introduced some isopods (pillbugs) and native plants into a milk snake enclosure, and he has been more visible and less jumpy.

We just happen to have a snake that cohabits the tree frog’s ecosystem, so it was my job to create an exhibit that could house both while being visually appealing. Thank you, Amphibian Management School! I got this!

So the exhibit itself isn’t the most attractive, but I can work with it.

Step 1

We need a good base. The exhibit needs to be heavily planted. Here’s the dilemma. The frogs need to be sprayed heavily every day, and plants like water, but not TOO much water, or their roots will rot. The solution? A false bottom. The frogs get their spraying, and the extra water has a place to go.

Take a piece of plastic egg crate (it’s really plastic mesh) and cut it to the size and general shape of the enclosure. Then take some pieces of PVC pipe. Their length doesn’t matter at all, just their diameter. The job of the pvc is to hold the mesh off the bottom. Don’t stand the PVS straight up, or they will get clogged with dirty water that you can’t get out.

My PVC was fairly narrow in diameter. I also didn’t have egg crate, so I used a rigid mesh.

Step 2 

The water under the exhibit will eventually build up and soak the substrate unless you have a way to get rid of it. Solution? A stand pipe. I can run a piece of flexible tubing down into the stand pile and drain out the extra water.

Ta-da! Even I, the mechanically disinclined, can make a dream come true!

Step 3

Cover the egg crate or mesh with wire screen. This step keeps your substrate (dirt) from dropping straight through the mesh. It’s very inexpensive. Also, this is the step I forgot to take a photo of. Secure the mesh to the screen with zip ties for added peace of mind. I zip-tied mine every which way from Sunday, just to be on the safe side!

Step 4

Add your substrate. Frogs breathe through their skin (some species don’t even develop lungs at all), so any toxin in the environment goes straight into them. So get the organic stuff. There’s a mix called ABG, after Atlanta Botanical Garden, after the facility that perfected it. People have tweaked it to their own needs. I was limited to the items on hand, so I used equal parts milled sphagnum, crushed peat, and long-fiber moss. Most people also add charcoal (like, a bag of Cowboy charcoal you get at Lowe’s – simply crush with a hammer), but I didn’t have any. I dumped everything into a trash can I use for feeding snakes and wetted it down thoroughly. WEAR A MASK. This stuff is dusty, and you’ll be sneezing brown for days. Don’t ask how I know.

Worst photo in the world, but you get the idea.

Step 5

Now’s the fun part. Add some branches for the arboreal snake. He is one that never comes down to the ground, so the more options you can give him for hanging, the better off he will be. Let him choose if he wants to be higher, lower, covered in plant leaves, etc.

Step 6

Add the plants. This is my favorite part. I LOVE plants almost as much as I love my animals. I made a trip to Stanley’s Greenhouse to find some lovelies to put in my exhibit. I used a Bird’s Nest fern, a hybrid fern, many varieties of Elephant Ear, a tiny little Philodendron,  Lady’s Slipper, and some vining plants. Go pesticide-free for frogs.

Ta-DA! Note the stand-pipe is concealed by the fern. If the frogs are small, I’ll use PVC cutters to shorten the pipe and cover it with a rock so no one accidentally falls through!

I am very pleased with it. Time will tell if the Emerald Tree Boa will beat anything up. What does he think of the set-up?

Confused. So many choices, so many branches to climb!

If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to ask. If I can do it, seriously, anyone can! What have you done that you didn’t think you could do?


Notes From the Zookeeper: Another Day, Another Lizard

Yesterday was our third day of volunteering at the Turtle Survival Center is South Carolina. We made mud pies and played in the water. Technically, we made hide boxes out of concrete and built recirculating water systems for turtles. Potato, po-tah-to.

My co-worker is chomping at the bit to get over to the center this morning, so you get a truncated view of yesterday’s fun times.

As promised. Cappuccino the water buffalo, aka “Cappy.”


Today we go home. I’m going to miss this place. I wonder if Cappy would fit in a Nissan Juke…


Notes From the Zookeeper: I’m Surrounded By Turtles!

It’s day two at the Turtle Survival Center. I may never leave. Yesterday we scrubbed 40 turtle enclosures and did water changes, and I fell in love with a water buffalo named Cappuccino. Today, we prepared all the food for both veggie eaters and carnivores for some of the most endangered turtles in the world. I didn’t include any pics of the meat-based diet. Let’s just say I cleaned some blood off the walls when we were done and leave it at that.

This is a Leucocephalon yuwonoi, a name that is really fun to say! The boys have bright white heads. They have the best feet!

I have better pictures of the animals, but we have to wait until I am home because I am on my computer that has the screen that is pixelated and pink. You get my phone pictures. I put them in gallery form to make for easier viewing. Click to enlarge and read the caption.

I’ll try to have photos of the water buffalo tomorrow. What’s new in your world?


Notes From the Zookeeper: ROAD TRIP!

As you can perhaps tell from the title, I’m on the road. The boss, in his infinite graciousness (or in his desperation to get rid of me for a few days) budgeted to send me and a co-worker on a learning expedition.  He gets to go to France and Madagascar and New Mexico. I get to go to Detroit in February and South Carolina in June. He might be trying to get rid of me for MORE than a few days. All he has to do is make it look like an accident, you know.

But I could not be happier. In February, I attended Amphibian Management School in Detroit, which was an incredible experience. And now, I am deep in the wilds of South Carolina, no cell phone reception and mosquitoes the size of small dogs. And I am happy. I’m at the Turtle Survival Center. I know. Pinch me. I can’t believe I’m really here.

We arrived last night (thank you, MapQuest, giant raspberry to Google Maps) in the middle of nowhere. A middle of nowhere that boasts 1,000 cornfields, a car show (sorry for almost greasing you, kid on the motorbike with no lights at dusk. But we both know it was your fault.) and enough Dollar Generals to keep Ravenclaw in Mousies for the rest of her life.

This cat is so addicted to her mousie that the person who gifted her the first two went out and bought her eight more!

The nearest real grocery store is an hour away, but the most endangered tortoises and turtles in the world are right outside my door.

We’re here to volunteer. We brings some knowledge to the table already, but the director and chelonian keeper are prepped to drop some learning on us. After discussions with our lead keeper on what he’d like us to see, they’ve set up an agenda for us. We’re going to jump into some current projects involving plumbing and construction and try not to get in the way or lose a finger help complete them. I want to learn construction, and I also want to learn what kinds of browse they feed here. We try to give our animals a varied diet, and now we can get some info on how to expand our menu.

I don’t have any images to share yet because we just got here. AND I don’t know what I am allowed to share. So you get something from my archives. Kind of a chef’s surprise.

Al says “Nah!”

We have a tour this morning, and I’m taking lots of photos, but if they say they’re just for personal use, you’ll just have to make a trip to my house to see them. In the meantime, random photos from my phone.

Happy Trails!


Notes From the Zookeeper: Working With Venomous Snakes

One of the most common questions I get is “Do you handle the venomous snakes?” The answer isn’t a straight “yes” or “no.” The answer is, we do work with them regularly (we offer food, clean the enclosures, and fill water bowls at least once a week), but we only put our hands on them if we absolutely have to. But sometimes, it’s necessary. A veterinarian might need to check a snake over do diagnose a problem, etc. So how do we do it? With lots of training, and some special tools.

Last week, our Lead Keeper, Stephen, needed to catch up a Catalina Island Rattlesnake (also known as the rattleless rattlesnake – they are a true Crotalus rattlesnake genetically, but they don’t grow a rattle), and he let me take some pictures to share. The photos were taken with my little phone, so they aren’t great, but I didn’t want to use a flash.

Step one: put the snake on the counter.

snake in trash can

We use large trash cans with modified lids for holding venomous snakes for feeding, cleaning enclosures, etc.

Step 2: Move the snake to a counter. It’s important to work a snake in a place that they can’t easily escape from.

Catalina island rattlesnake

We use long hooks to move venomous or nippy snakes from one place to another.

Step 3: Since Stephen actually needs to get his hands on this snake, he is going to have to “tube” it. You can see a selection of tubes of different sizes under the counter in the photo above. The idea is to choose a tube that is big enough for the snake to move into easily, but not so big that it can turn around while it is in there.

Snakes have poor vision, and they will instinctively choose a hiding place into which they fit snugly.

Stephen uses the hook to encourage the snake to move toward the tube. Since this is a fairly small snake, he can hold the tube with his hand. If it were a longer snake, like a cobra, he would hold the end of the tube with a pair of tongs.

Step 4: It’s hard to tell from the photo, but there are two tubes – one inside the other. The snake didn’t like the small tube, so it was offered a larger one. Once it slithered into the big one, the correct size tube was inserted. The snake wriggled right in.

tube a snake

The snake is finally moving into the tube. Sometimes it can take forty-five minutes or more to convince the snake that the tube is a great hiding place. This time, it only took a few minutes.

Step 5: Secure the snake in the tube by grabbing hold of it. Now the snake is safely restrained. The use of a clear tube means that not only can a veterinarian see any medical issues, we also know exactly where the snake’s head is.

hooks poisonous snake

Once the snake is about half-way into the tube, it’s safe to grab tube and snake together. Note that the tube is much too small for the snake to turn around and deliver a bite.

Stephen needed to “tube” this animal because the zoo we received the snake from requested photos of its vent area for comparison. Tubing is also used when a snake needs to be given an injection, must be anesthetized for a medical procedure, or even to get an x-ray of a non-venomous snake (it’s hard to radiograph a spine when its coils are all piled up on top of each other!).

I have so much to tell you about my week at Amphibian Management School and field work with Stephen!

What other questions do you have?