Behind the scenes at the ABQ Biopark


I visit zoological parks with some trepidation. I think there are some species of animal that are ill suited to captivity, and proper maintenance of any zoo is a monumental task. However, I have been luckily enough to have close working relationships with all manner of zoo staff, from keepers to educators to directors. Zoo people are good people and they take ethical quandaries very seriously. It’s no surprise that, over the past 10 years, zoos have been undergoing makeovers and pushing conservation narratives as part of their educational programming.  Today my husband and I took a behind the scenes tour of the giraffe and rhino facilities at the ABQ Biopark, our new hometown zoo. We moved to Albuquerque in January and the Biopark was one of our first stops. I especially love the Bugarium.


Male beetles duke it out on the Valentine’s Day during the Bugarium’s “Love Bugs” event.

Behind the scenes tours always have a chance of being a bit depressing. While many zoos have beautiful, natural feeling exhibit spaces, holding areas are often dark, damp, and depressing. They are built for safety and for the ease of keeping animals, not for guests. I put my worries aside and purchased a ticket anyway. Perhaps patting a rhino would be worth it?

We were greeted by friendly staff in the administration office and given large VIP buttons. When we got to the meeting area it had been clear our group was waiting for us (sorry fellow zoo patrons and keeper). The keeper gave us a quick introduction and some ground rules and we set forth back to the rhino holding area. On the wall were neatly arranged brushes for cleaning the rhinos and giving them scratches.  The rhinos, Chopper and Bertha were waiting. Our keeper let us know that zoo staff were trying to condition Chopper to present his flank rather than greet people head on through the bars. So, we were encouraged to give good quality scratches when he presented his flank. Right away I noticed that the holding area was well maintained, new, and had more than enough space for the rhinos. Secondly, the Biopark has special rules that allow certain animals access to both their outside exhibits and the inside holding area unless the weather is too cold or otherwise horrible. It was good to know that the holding area was really just a holding area, rather than the main home of Bertha and Chopper. To my delight, both Bertha and Chopper appeared to like having the area behind their ears rubbed.


Zane contemplates rhino conservation with Bertha. 

Our keeper identified them as Southern white rhinos. Their Northern cousins are extinct in the wild. Southern white rhinos almost met a similar fate. A century of conservation has brought their global population from < 100 to over 20,000 individuals. With advances in reproductive technology, scientists are able to maintain “frozen zoos” where they keep viable sperm, eggs, and embryos of species in need. In 2015, the San Diego brought 6 female Southern white rhinos to their zoo to serve as surrogate mothers for Northern white rhino embryos. The potential moms have undergone exams this year to prepare them for surrogacy. Bertha and Chopper help wild rhinos in other ways. The Biopark works with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) as part of the rhino Species Survival Plan. This means that they work with other AZA accredited institutions to ensure that captive rhinos are properly cared for and that they are genetically diverse. So when you support places like the Biopark, you are helping to maintain a sort of genetic insurance plan for wild animals. Genetically speaking, Noah’s ark doesn’t work very well in practice. Zoos cannot maintain tiny populations of a species and hope to build up a genetically healthy population. Even many zoos with many individuals are at a collective loss if the individuals in questions are too closely related. Species Survival Plans help stop that from happening. And so I was happy to support Chopper and Bertha with my ticket and ear scratches. On a side note, rhinos very much maintain the same body posture of Eeyore, the meloncholy burro from Winnie the Pooh. It’s very hard to get a photo of a rhino where it doesn’t look sullen, no mater how much it is enjoying a scratch.


Chopper gets a scratch from a young guest while keeping his head down, just like Eeeyore.

After wrapping up with the rhinos, we were off to meet the giraffes. The giraffes at the Biopark are also part of their own Species Survival Plan. You might ask yourself why giraffes need a Species Survival Plan. The giraffe keeper at the Biopark had a very good explanation for this. Giraffes have undergone significant population decline. Some conservationists refer to the decline as a “silent extinction” because no one talks about it. To make matters more complicated, scientists are just barely unwinding the secrets of giraffe DNA, revealing several different kinds of giraffes. When giraffes were originally brought into zoos, these different kinds were interbred, making most captive giraffes some kind of mix.

The giraffes we met were reticulated giraffes, with maybe a pinch of something else here and there. The Biopark has a few female giraffes, one young male, and one older male, affectionately known as “Buck” which is short for Buccaneer. Giraffes are highly specialized to browse leaves that grow tall in trees. So, we had the opportunity to feed them leaves still stuck on twigs.


If giraffes do  not get to use their tongues to forage, they start to lick non food objects.

These extra feedings, along with special food hampers that force the giraffes to use their tongues, help them relax and avoid stereotyped licking behaviors. Apparently, and I did not know this, giraffes are very sensitive. If they are stressed or not cared for properly, they can die from nutritional complications. It is very important they ruminate for long enough to properly digest their food. Additionally, keepers try to make sure older giraffes, especially females, are not separated from their established social groups for long periods of time or moved to new zoos. Moving causes loads of stress and is not a first resort when caring for giraffes, so giraffe keepers prefer to avoid it.

Visiting the rhinos and giraffes got me thinking about the role modern zoos play in society. After the documentary, Blackfish, the ethics of keeping certain animals captive for human entertainment has skyrocketed to the forefront of the American public’s minds. As we visited the rest of the Biopark we saw lots of other animals, some of which would arguably be much happier in large open, free, spaces. However, those spaces are disappearing and their wild counterparts suffer at the hands of people.  If modern zoos are committed to Species Survival Plans and taking proper care of their animals, maybe it’s worth it to keep healthy populations in zoos? It could be, now that we are living through the 6th extinction, that we have a moral imperative to keep genetically viable populations of wild animals in captivity. Zoological parks and aquariums, especially those with AZA accreditation, do work towards the welfare of their charges. Increasingly, education programs are being measured against their effectiveness at changing human behaviors and knowledge retention.  Did you spend more time at an exhibit because of an educational program? Did you remember more? Did going to the zoo inspire you to purchase shade grown coffee? Did you decide to donate to a conservation effort? Maybe you joined a citizen science project with your local zoo?

In my case, I paid a little extra to go on a behind the scenes tour with two species that need our care and our help. Maybe you would like to go too? 

P.S. I donate to conservation organizations that work in the field and contribute to citizen science projects. I also allow non-profits to use my photography for free. Helping the local zoo is great, but one has to get off their arse and get dirty in the field once in awhile.




To Sea or Not to Sea: Why we Should be Viewing Orcas in the Wild and Not at Marine Parks

9 year old Becky touching Kalina's pectoral fin

On my 10th birthday my grandmother died of breast cancer after a long bout with chemo. I remember being in the hospice and whispering in her ear, even though she was unresponsive and on life support, that it was my birthday and if she had been waiting to let go it was okay now; she could go. That afternoon she did.

My family had known for a long time that the chemo wasn’t working, and that we needed to spend as much time together as we could. So, before my grandma was too sick to go, we packed everyone up and went to Orlando, Florida to visit DisneyWorld and SeaWorld. Before leaving, a friend of a friend had arranged a backstage tour at SeaWorld after the Orca show, explaining that my grandmother was terminally ill and it would be very special for my family.

The Orca show went off without a hitch.  After the show we met some of the trainers, and went backstage.  I remember meeting one male and one female whale trainer.  The man asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I proudly answered him, “Marine Biologist!” We came to a pool with a few female Orcas in it.  The trainers explained that the whale we were meeting was nursing her calf, which leads me to believe that it was a whale named Kalina, and that sometimes her baby would come up for with a mouthful of milk during training. The trainers love their whales, and they care for them in the best ways the know how.

Kalina was instructed to roll over on her back, and each of us got a turn to briefly touch her pectoral fin. The trainers were very professional, and the event was as non-invasive for Kalina as could be.  We didn’t get to sit on her or pat her face; just a quick touch of the flipper.

9 year old Becky touching Kalina's pectoral fin

Becky in 1996 during a family trip to SeaWorld Orlando.

One would think that touching a member of the species Orcanis orca in the flesh would have been the most memorable thing I did at SeaWorld, but it wasn’t.

Before going to the whale show we stopped at the Dolphin Cove at feeding time.  During these feeding sessions, guests can purchase fish to give to the dolphins.  I was really excited about this because I had seen dolphin shows in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo for years, and seen dolphins on countless television documentaries.  I was enchanted by anthropomorphic stories of how friendly and smart they were.  Before feeding time the dolphins swam around in circles, mostly ignoring the guests.  When feeding time finally came they approached us with much gusto, pushing and shoving each other out of the way.  While feeding one of the dolphins I briefly pulled back the fish and touched its chin when it swam forward after the fish.  The dolphin jerked its head away from my hand but remained with mouth agape, begging for fish.

It was not what I had been expecting.  Clearly, these dolphins didn’t care if they interacted with me, and they weren’t that keen on being touched either.  The fish were reinforcing, not contact with me. These were not the creatures I heard about on TV, and I was disappointing upon realizing how unrealistic my expectations had been.

Fast forward to 2002.  My mother picked me up from summer camp with a surprise.  We were going to Alaska.  Not only were we going to Alaska, we were going the following week!  During our Alaska adventure we stopped in a town called Seward to go whale watching.

We checked in at the boat dock and left the harbor.  The boat captain took us to see a glacier that was busy calving itself into the ocean.  Harbor Seals lounged on some of the ice chunks floating near the glacier unperturbed by the massive pieces of ice falling into the ocean behind them.  We spotted Puffins, Bald Eagles, and distant Humpback Whales. The last half of the trip was spent observing Orca whales.  Once he spotted the Orcas, the captain swung the boat around many yards in front of them, presumably so they would pass by the boat.  Pass by they did.  The Orcas spy hopped, breached, and played in the wake.  When an Orca whale is right by your boat, they seem a whole lot bigger than on TV.  In all honesty we got lucky, and not everyone who goes whale watching will get such a spectacular show of behavior.

Orca swimming in Seward, AK.

Orca in Seward, AK. Photo from Flickr user zombienate.

So, that brings us to the point of my narrative. I have laid out two very different encounters I’ve had with Orca whales, and I have been puzzling over my experiences in light of the documentary “Blackfish.”  Turns out I’m not the only one. Two state bills have been introduced attempting to ban captive Orca shows, and just today OSHA won in court, preventing SeaWorld from allowing their trainers to work in the water with the whales.  As an aside, I encourage anyone who has seen “Blackfish” to do their own research, and to read statements made by more current Orca trainers than the ones interviewed for the film. The range of opinions and ethical positions among the professionals in the industry is fascinating, and there’s a lot more to learn out there.

While “Blackfish” got me thinking, it specifically got me thinking about a topic I’d already thought about before. Before seeing Orcas up close and personal I saw them on television.  I distinctly remember the narrator on one of the documentaries mentioning that Orcas do not live as long in captivity as they do in the wild.  I asked my mother why we keep them in captivity if they don’t get to live as long?  She told me, in a very matronly way as I was still very young, that:

“many kids, unlike you, live in cities. Children in big cities that don’t have parents who like to go outside will probably never get to see very many animals in the wild. So, they go to places like SeaWorld and get to see animals they would never get to see otherwise.”

Becky' mom taking her for a hike at an early age.

Becky’ s mom taking her for a hike at an early age.

Her conclusion was that it is important for everyone to see these kinds of creatures because everyone needs to understand how important they are.  If a few whales don’t get to live out their full lifespans it’s okay because they are helping their wild counterparts in the long run.

For a long time, I accepted this wisdom.

As I have aged, however, the wisdom has gotten muddled up for me in two ways:

1) The Chicken and the Egg:

Children and adults that get meaningful experiences from zoos and aquariums might already have a concern for animals and the environment.  Therefore zoo and aquarium attendance is a byproduct, and not a cause, of inspired children and adults.

2) Circus Act or Once in a Lifetime Educational Opportunity?:

Whale and dolphin shows may not actually provide significant educational experiences, but primarily entertainment for children and families that already love animals.

I think that humans care about things they have meaningful experiences with, but that whale and dolphin shows are becoming increasingly meaningless.  Caring about Orcas means more than caring about the whales themselves. It means caring about their habitat.  It means caring about their prey. It means caring about global climate change. SeaWorld patrons don’t get meaningful experiences with these other major aspects of Orca Biology by attending whale and dolphin shows.  When was the last time you heard about climate change and disease transmission in wild cetaceans (whales and dolphins) while visiting an aquarium?

To illustrate my point I would like you, the reader, to try something.

1) Visit

2) In the search box type in “Orca SeaWorld”

3) Write down something you were able to infer about Orcas and their habitat from scrolling through the photos.  How many other non-Orca species did you see? Don’t google anything and don’t read the captions.


4) Repeat you search, but instead type in “Orca Seward”

5) Write down something you were able to infer about Orcas and their habitat from scrolling through the photos.  How many other non-orca species did you see?  Don’t google anything and don’t read the captions.

6) Leave me a comment explaining what you learned.


I leaned that:

  • Orcas live in the water.
  • Orcas like to jump.
  • Orcas live in groups.
  • Some of them have floppy dorsal fins.
  • They eat fish.


I learned that:

  • Orcas live in the ocean near the coast.
  • Orcas live in groups, and there is a lot of size and age variation among individuals.
  • Sometimes the groups are really big.
  • Most Orcas do not have floppy dorsal fins.
  • Humpback whales live in the same places Orcas do.
  • It is likely cold, there is snow on the mountains in the background, where Orcas live.

You might say, “Becky that is all fine and good, but there is no way most people can go see whales in the wild.”  Actually, it would cost most families less to go on a whale watching cruise than to go to SeaWorld for a day.  The only reason to see whales in a marine park is because you’re already in town for something else, and it’s convenient, not because it’s cheap.

A chart displaying the costs of seeing live whales for a family of four.

A chart displaying the costs of seeing live whales for a family of four.

Thought exercises aside, what is the next step?  Personally, I would like to see an industry based shift towards eco-tourism and away from captive Orca shows that may, or may not, provide truly educational experiences that are scientifically proven to increase more eco-friendly behavior in families.  It is likely not a prudent course of action to free all captive Orcas, but the industry can stop breeding them.  The industry can take the high ground and make this the last generation of captive animals, and re-brand itself as a set of educational institutions rather than family entertainment.

Amendment 4/13/2014:

Holding a snake at a zoo.

Becky holding a Speckled Kingsnake at the Land Between the Lakes Nature Station

I wanted to state that I personally enjoy visiting zoos and aquariums, and I think that they can provide truly educational and inspiring experiences for their guests.  The difference, however, between cetaceans and other animals is that even the very best institutions cannot give them the care that they need to live a full life span, and they are used for, what I think, are minimally educational performances.