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.




Where the Wild Things Are: An Ode to Small Creatures


Spring has sprung, and I have been out en force with my camera.  Mostly, I take pictures of bugs, as I find waiting for that shot of the majestic moose or bugling elk to be an intrepid waste of time. Not that I wouldn’t take advantage of the situation if it arose…

Let me preface this by saying that I have been mostly devoid of opportunities to work with, what we call in the biology biz, “charismatic megafauna.”   By and large, I’ve been okay with that.  Studying insects has made me keenly aware that there is an entire hustling and bustling world available to me whenever I step out my door, so long as I am patient enough to look, and flip over a few rocks.

Yesterday, I found myself up Slate Creek flipping rocks in terrible weather.  While there were no herps (reptiles and amphibians)

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

lurking in the rocks, there were plenty of spiders, beetles, and crickets.  I love these little adventures because I learn lots of stupid things that I would have never thought to ask about.  For example, the kinds of crickets you buy at the pet store are not the same kind you find in the wild in Idaho.  Wild crickets are smaller, jet black, quiet little bugs (at least until night time).  Spider mothers that make nests under rocks must do so upside down if they have any intention of attaching their web to said rock.

On a similarly timed hike I took last weekend I got luckier.  I was especially pleased, though my dog was not, to happen upon a basking Sagebrush Lizard that didn’t mind me taking about a hundred photos.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

The dog wanted to get on with the hike, as we had just left the parking lot. The Cusick Creek parking lot is located next to the wild and scenic “Pocatello Women’s Correctional Facility”, and the road leading to it is adorned with a sign instructing motorists to avoid hitch hikers.  I don’t know what used to be near the trail head, but there’s lots of old concrete and a large overgrown building foundation.  I found this lizard, and one other that ran off, in one of these concrete piles.  Their pile was poking up in the Sagebrush, perfect for catching the afternoon sun.  I think it must be akin to a lizard mansion in the Hamptons. If you take the time to watch lizard behavior, it can get pretty entertaining.  Lizards often defend the best basking spots with emphatic head bobs.  Now that I know where this pair lives, I will visit them again.

Later on the same hike, I came around a bend and was poking around some logs hoping for a snake to come out. Instead of a snake, I found some snake food.  A Deer Mouse poked its

Poking out from inside a log.

Poking out from inside a log.

head out from inside a log and gave me a long hard look.  This is exciting because I only ever get fleeting glances of rodents, shrews, and voles in the wild.  I hear a rustle of leaves, and they’re gone.  This little fellow took a long time to check me out, and I was able to observe him in his log.

If I were primarily concerned with getting the big “million dollar photos” and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters I would miss so much.  On just two hikes I got some awesome photos and learned a few things, just as a naturalist is supposed to do.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold indicates that he is so familiar with the animals on his property, that he knows if a single Chickadee is missing.  He knows when and where they’ll be on his property during each season too.  As an avid hunter, he knew all the game birds and exactly what they liked to eat, and when each food was in season.  When I am out on my hikes I secretly hope that I am slowly gaining the same kind of knowledge Leopold did about his stomping grounds. Maybe when I am old my naturalist ways will seem like the sort of sage wisdom you read about in Tolkien books.

There is something about hiking that makes me nostalgic for naturalists I read about.  In biology, we consider old-time naturalism to be kind of a dead art.  It’s no longer enough to find an animal, sketch it, take some detailed notes, and publish a paper.  The art has been replaced by rigorous empiricism.

While this shift has given science a boost, I think that the tradition of good naturalism has gotten lost in the shuffle, and it was one of the best ways to get people interested in all the common things out in their backyards.  It’s too bad because that’s where conservation ethics start. Children and adults that make the time to look for the little plants and the little creatures in spite of this fact have a particular and highly admirable character trait.  To spend time looking for these small and common things in nature, begets a certain kind of empathy in a person.  It begets the kind of empathy that extends to, not only plants and animals, but all of our fellow men and women.   It’s the kind of empathy the world needs more of.

With that I will leave you with a quote from my favorite naturalist:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” -Charles Darwin

Taken near the mouse in the log.

Taken near the mouse in the log.