In this special episode of Kentucky Life, host Doug Flynn visits the Louisville Zoo and gets a behind-the-scenes look at animal training, the processes involved in keeping the animals healthy, the variety of foods kept on hand, the successful black-footed ferret recovery program, and the zoo’s conservation programs, including the Gorilla Forest.
More than 1,500 animals live at the Louisville Zoological Gardens, the state zoo of Kentucky. The zoo is a world pioneer in multi-species rotational exhibits, where animals rotate in and out of varied habitat spaces at unpredictable times, which more closely resembles life in a natural environment.
“We did this to enrich the animals’ lives. They’re always experiencing something different throughout the day,” said zoo director John Walczak.
The Islands was the first such exhibit in the world, he said. The zoo extended the concept with the addition of the Gorilla Forest and Glacier Run.
Training the Animals
Have you ever wondered how zookeepers get close enough to wild animals to feed them and take care of them? Jane Anne Franklin, mammal curator and animal training supervisor at the Louisville Zoo, has the answers.
“These animals need to be trained to let us take the best care of them possible,” she said. “It allows us to get up close and personal to them, check them out, make sure they don’t have any issues. It lets us into their world, so any subtleties in their behavior, behavior changes, we’ll notice right away.”
The relationship is based on trust, she said. The trainers do some of their work with a physical barrier, like a chain-link fence, between themselves and the animals. The animals must choose to approach the trainer. “I cannot make a 500-pound bear come to me if it doesn’t want to,” she said. “So you either need to be motivating enough, or they need to trust you enough.”
Franklin said trainers use a whistle, the sound of which always means a reward to the animal. It also means the trainers can get the attention of an animal from some distance away.
Bart the sea lion, who has lived at the zoo all of his 23 years, focuses his attention on his trainer and reads body language. He lets his trainer check his eyes, ears, mouth. and flippers each morning. He blew raspberries at his mother when he wanted to nurse, and now he does that when he wants his trainers to feed him, Franklin said.
Despite the training, the animals are not tamed and are still wild animals, Franklin said. “Even though Bart was born in captivity, he’s not domesticated. So if he needs to tell you something, he’s pretty honest about it,” she said. “If he decides you’re in his face and he doesn’t care for it, he gives you cues. And we have to learn how to read our animals and understand how sea lions speak.”
Is it tough to train an older animal?
“It takes a little more patience,” she said. “But honestly, some of these animals have seen so much, and they’ve had to make so many choices on their own, that they have taught themselves how to learn.”
Animals that have worked for a living in the wild pick up quickly on the rewards the human trainers offer, she said. “Some other animals that have been born in a managed system haven’t had that kind of pressure on them. They’ve always had room service.”
The Louisville Zoo has over 250 species of animals, said zoo director John Walczak. The zoo prides itself on conservation education and its preservation programs. Among the endangered animals at the zoo are the polar bear and the orangutan.
The zoo’s polar bears live in the Glacier Run exhibit. “Polar bears, of course, are the icon of climate change. What’s happening with the world today, the ice is melting. Female polar bears are dependent on the ice to eat, to breed, for everything,” Walczak said.
Polar bears eat for six months a year, and because the ice is disappearing, they have less time to develop fat reserves, Walczak said. Now they have twins or singlets, instead of triplets, and even twins are difficult.
“They usually don’t have enough nourishment to take care of the second cub,” he said. “And regrettably, a lot of the cubs are abandoned out on the tundra and they don’t make it.”
The orangutan is destined for extinction within the next 20 years in the wild, Walczak said. The zoo cares for four orangutans. Researchers have found that orangutan nest-building shows evidence of complex thinking about materials and design. “Our orangutans are brilliant. We have one that has the cognitive problem-solving abilities of a third-year engineering student,” he said.
Walczak said that even if people don’t agree with the concept of climate change, people can agree that it’s smart to save energy. “Our generation should not have the right to burn up all the energy on the planet,” he said. “Saving is a good thing, conserving, living in balance is a good thing.”
Gorillas and Ferrets
Habitat loss, poaching, and the effects of climate change are just some of the issues that put animals at risk around the world.
Among the endangered species at the zoo is the Western Lowland gorilla, and the zoo’s 4-acre Gorilla Forest is home to 10 of them.
“Gorillas are considered to be critically endangered,” said Steven R. Taylor, assistant director of conservation, education, and collections. “The Western Lowland gorilla…there’s probably more of them than maybe the other types of gorillas. There’s maybe 100,000.” Their relatively plentiful numbers, he said, are due to the fact that it’s hard for people to get to parts of west central Africa where the gorillas make their home. They are still considered to be critically endangered.
Most zoo gorillas today were born in captivity. The Louisville Zoo’s newest gorilla is Kindi, who was born on March 14, 2016, via Caesarean section. Kindi’s mother died the next day from complications. “So around the clock care, 24 hours a day care, started at that point,” Taylor said. In August 2016, the zoo introduced Kindi to one of the adult females in the group, Kweli, who acts as her surrogate mother.
Another animal being brought back from the brink of extinction is the black-footed ferret. “Our zoo has reproduced more black-footed ferrets than any zoo in the world,” said Walczak.
The black-footed ferret is one of the rarest animals in North America, said Guy Graves, zookeeper and Conservation Center manager. The animal had been declared extinct until a small population was discovered in Wyoming in 1987. Since 1990, the zoo has produced over 1,000 kits and provided over 700 ferrets for reintroduction to their native American Plains habitat.
The adult ferret is 18-24 inches long (including tail) and weighs 1.5 to 3 pounds. They look similar to domestic ferrets, but these ferrets live out west and feed on prairie dogs. “If you’ve ever seen a prairie dog, it’s actually quite a bit bigger than they are,” he said.
Ferrets are born in the spring, and when they are about 9 months old, they would typically be on their own in the wild. At that point, the Louisville Zoo sends them to a ferret conservation facility out west, which releases them into the wild after about a month. “It’s kind of a boot camp. Because they basically are exposed to prairie dogs to make sure they’re able to kill, and then they’re released,” he said.
The Hospital and the Commissary
At the zoo hospital, Dr. Zoli Gyimesi is senior staff veterinarian, taking care of everything from invertebrates like millipedes and tarantulas, to birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals.
The zoo offers preventative care such as vaccinations, pest and parasite control, and tuberculosis testing of susceptible animals. “You know, wild animals and zoo animals hide their disease, so we try to be on the preventative end of things,” Gyimesi said.
Animals are trained to allow their keepers and the veterinarians to examine them. Animal training also decreases stress for the animals, according to Gyimesi.
“When an animal cooperates with the keepers and the trainers – and that could be stepping on a scale, presenting a body part for evaluation, allowing us to touch or medicate them – that makes it so much easier to monitor and care for them,” he said. In some instances, training means the veterinarians don’t have to use anesthesia, he said, avoiding the risks that accompany that.
Food for the animals is stored in a commissary. Zookeeper Rebekah Vaile said every animal has a specific diet, whether it is yams, apples, and carrots for the elephants or alfalfa for the camels. A look at the whiteboard detailing the animal diets reveals a varied menu of mice and smelt, herring, knuckle bone, and thigh bone.
“Our lion, Kenya, he’s getting 12 pounds of our feline diet right now. Our Amur tiger, he is getting 12 pounds of our feline diet and 2 pounds of our chunk meats. Each animal gets a very, very detailed diet,” she said.
Vaile said the zoo gets deliveries of fresh produce daily, a grain delivery weekly, and frozen rodents weekly, keeping the zoo animals happy and healthy.