Zookeeper’s Holiday- Indianapolis Zoo

Every year during the American Association of Zookeepers’ national conference, the host city has a Zoo Day. This year’s conference was in Indianapolis, so I was able to enjoy the Indianapolis Zoo from a zookeeper’s perspective.

Zookeepers are interesting. When they go on vacation, they often plan their entire vacation around zoos. If, by some slim chance, they DON’T center it around zoos, they still visit one if it’s close-by. Remind me to tell you about my trip down the Rhine River, and the zoos I hit along the way. It’s a great story.

Anyways, I had the chance to explore Indianapolis Zoo, and I was left with a very good impression. First of all, Indianapolis Zoo is right outside of downtown Indianapolis. So, it’s very much a city zoo. But they did an excellent job of transporting visitors from the hustle and bustle of city life to an enjoyable adventure with wildlife.

1. Sloths

Sloths are huge right now. It can’t be because I created the Sloth Army, but it certainly correlates together. I create Sloth Army, sloths become a huge trend. (I’m sure the sloth in Disney’s Zootopia played a small hand in it, but it was probably all me and the Sloth Army)

Anyways, sloths were one of the first animals I made a bee-line for. And I have to say, the sloth exhibit was pretty neat. Instead of an enclosure, the sloths were off a short meandering path through a garden which was continually misted (hence the name “MIST-tery Park). No barriers, just two chill-axing dudes hanging out on their perches. Oh, and their care-givers. It’s actually a good thing there were attendants watching over the sloths. I’m pretty sure I would have shoved one in my bag and high-tailed it out of there. (I’m kidding…sorta)

2. Flamingos

Flamingo Mingle

After I dragged myself away from the sloths, I went to see where the rest of the conference might be. I found where most of them were- at the Flamingo Mingle (there’s a fun tongue-twister). Most of the crowd were zookeepers, sitting in a huge circle around a flock of flamingos (which is technically a flamboyance, if you want the correct lingo for a group of the pink birds) (also, do you know why they’re pink? The shrimp they eat is full of beta carotene, which turns them pink)

The flamingos were just wandering around, like they owned the place. Once in a while, one would lower their head to some girl sitting on the ground, and rustle through her hair with its bill. It didn’t look like it hurt, maybe even just tickled. Plus, we’re all zookeepers, we love this kind of stuff. Once in a lifetime interaction, and connection to an impressive bird. I mean, the flamingos didn’t come NEAR me and they made an impression (just because you don’t touch them, doesn’t mean they didn’t touch you).

I’m sure there are other flamingo encounters in dozens of other zoos, but this was the first time I experienced anything like it, and it was really something to watch. In fact, the whole idea of letting flamingos interact with the public really meant a lot to me.

Flamingo Feed

Indy Zoo also offers a flamingo feeding opportunity, which I attended a little later in the day. There’s two things I want to mention about Indianapolis  Zoo’s flamingos. I don’t normally spend a lot of time at flamingo exhibits. I mean, they are an impressive and beautiful bird, but as far as zoos go, they are kind of a mundane animal. But not only did Indy Zoo get me to care about flamingos and visit the exhibit, they got me to go TWICE to the flamingo exhibit in one day.

On top of me going twice to the flamingos to check them out and spend time with them, feeding flamingos was not at the top of my to-do list. In fact, at the same time as the flamingo feed, there was a giraffe feed, a tiger talk, and an animal encounter. I visited the flamingo feed BECAUSE of the flamingo mingle in the morning. It intrigued me enough to put the tiger chat on the back burner. I was more interested in flamingos.

Conservation Connection

Caribbean, or American flamingos aren’t critically endangered. But flamingos are what scientists call an indicator species. They are kind of in the middle of the ecosystem. If flamingos aren’t thriving, there are problems with the ENTIRE ecosystem. The krill they eat, the environment they live, and even their predators are at risk. So even though we aren’t overly concerned about their populations right now, if we don’t protect flamingos, there are other bigger problems.

The great thing about these experiences? Flamingos were definitely the highlight of my visit to Indy Zoo. As fascinating and wonderful as the walrus, orangutans, and dolphins were, when I shopped for souvenirs, I was thrilled to find a flamingo shirt. Stand tall, it says. And I think ZooFit helps us all do that with flair.

3. Walrus

One of my top questions I ask at every zoo is “what is one animal you have here that are rare in zoos?” When I asked this to a keeper during one of my tours, she looked at me oddly and said “probably the walrus.”

Having worked with walrus before, I sometimes forget just how incredibly awesome and wonderful it is to actually SEE a walrus in a zoo. According to the presenter at the walrus chat, there are only 14 walrus in zoological facilities in the United States. That’s it. SeaWorld (all three parks), Point Defiance, Six Flags, and Indianapolis. I got spoiled working with these guys, but they are amazing. Super smart, very personable. But pretty rare in zoos.

More rare than polar bears, who are considered the poster child for climate change. However, walrus can give polar bears a run for their money.

There is quite an effective conservation message associated with walrus. Their scientific name, Odobenus rosmarus, means “rosy toothwalker”. Their protruding tusks are not for fighting, although you better believe they will probably use them if necessary. Tusks are for hauling their gigantic asses out of the water and onto the sea ice. Walruses can weigh upwards of 3000 pounds. Without actual hands (they are pinnipeds after all, and only have flippers), it’s really difficult to get up onto ice floes. Walrus depend on sea ice for life. Mothers raise their young on sea ice. And the sea ice is melting, drastically and dramatically fast.

Seeing these big guys up close drives this point home. If walrus lose their ice, we may very well lose the walrus. And after seeing them again up-close and personal, they are hard to get out of your mind.

4. Orangutans

The Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center is a sight to behold. The first of its kind, this exhibit doesn’t so much highlight the natural environment as much as the natural abilities of orangutans. Built in 2014, this exhibit was one of the first to create a Hutan Trail, a series of towers and cables high above (80 feet above the ground) for orangutans to swing and climb around from area to area.

While it does not replicate the tropical Asian forests the great apes inhabit, it does so much more to showcase and empower the intelligence and prowess of one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

Watching orangs throughout the day climb to the top of a tower, and then nonchalantly hang from the cables or bars was very impressive. What floored me more was the orangutan demonstration put on by Dr. Robert Shumaker.

Intelligent Giants

Training orangutans to recognize symbols and to work a computer screen, Dr. Shumaker shared with attendants a learning session with Katy, a 30-year-old female at the Center. Katy had already learned the symbols for apple and banana, and was learning the symbol for grape. Shown a number of symbols to choose from, Katy had to choose the correct symbol for “grape”. In the session, she got it correct, 85% of the time.

The next lesson was on counting numbers. Katy was learning to put the numbers in correct order. 1, then 2. This was another new objective, but she still got it correct 90%. She only missed the first 2 and got the rest correct. Dr. Shumaker informed us when she got 90-95% correct for a certain number of days in a row, he would add in the number 3, and teach her to count 1, 2, 3.

If this isn’t blowing your mind, I honestly don’t know what will.

Conserve What We Are Connected To

The conservation message connected to orangutans at the Orangutan Center is subtle. By really showcasing their abilities and intelligence, we are more drawn to them than if we just saw them in an exhibit, playing or eating. This connection is strong, and gets us thinking. And then we are more prone to pay attention when we say “Orangutans like Katy are in trouble”.

It’s almost like what I am doing with ZooFit, to be honest. Connecting people to the earth by showing them how fun and engaging and motivating our fitness program can be, and then I slide that conservation message in like “oh, and you can save the world, too”.

Orangutans are showing us how to be people, in my opinion. If they can use a computer, and learn symbols, but THEY aren’t destroying their world, surely WE can be decent about protecting the earth, too.

5. Dolphins

Everyone loves dolphins. I mean, everyone. Well, maybe not my husband, because he heard all the stories of me working with dolphins, but he definitely has a certain amount of respect for them. But everyone else? They LOVE dolphins.

So it makes sense for Middle-America to bring in dolphins and showcase them. Because they have an important message to share with Middle-America, and anyone else. PROTECT OUR OCEANS. Even in Indianapolis, people have a profound impact on the health of the oceans. All rivers, even those with roots deep in the central part of the United States, lead to the ocean. Whatever we do so unto the rivers, we do unto the ocean.

Pesticide pollution and plastic waste are problems which threaten the local ecosystem of the White River in Indianapolis, and trickle down to affecting the Gulf of Mexico. So, we are all connected. Dolphins, humans, fish, frogs, turtles. And I think Indianapolis Zoo did a PHENOMENAL job demonstrating that. I mean, on-the-verge-of-tears level of the message hitting me. P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-A-L.

The dolphin show is incredibly powerful. And showy. But that’s dolphins for you. They can’t help it, really. But I was impressed with how Indianapolis pulled off a fantastic conservation message while portraying a very entertaining show. They really displayed the concept of “conservation through entertainment” well.

6. Dog Show

My last stop before hitting the gift shop and then heading back to my hotel was the All-Star Dog Challenge. A dog show? At a zoo? Yeah, a dog show. At a zoo.

This is a great show which demonstrates what you can achieve with positive reinforcement training. These dogs are having the time of their lives. And the show comes along with a great animal welfare message. Not just “positive reinforcement brings great success”, but “adopt, don’t shop”. All the dogs at the Indianapolis Zoo were rescued from a shelter.

I wanted to see the All-Star Challenge in person because I teach all about positive reinforcement, and having fun. Things this group obviously takes seriously. But I often forget how connecting us to our furry friends in healthy ways can have an impact on not just our well-being, but improve animal welfare, and help other furry friends find forever homes.

Now I need to go work on a blog post about finding a workout partner at your local shelter…


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