Cat Ambassador Senior Trainer Alicia Sampson and Savanna, a 2-year-old cheetah
Cheetahs are funny little creatures. They are skittish and fast movements startle them easily. You have to have a personality where you’re comfortable around animals. I’d worked with dolphins, birds, and as a dog trainer before working at the zoo, but on my first day, my boss walked me right through the show yard with a cheetah lying nearby and my immediate thought was: Oh my gosh, there’s a cheetah right there. Should we really be in here? It takes a little while to get used to, but I’m comfortable. I’ve raised them from babies.
Not every department raises their animals for 24 hours a day for the first six months. The cheetahs become very comfortable with us because someone is with them as babies around the clock for the first six months of their lives. We take turns staying overnight and sleeping with them. It is fun, but there are downsides. They are cats, so they will pee in their own beds. I think Tommy, our male, was the worst. The females are generally a little cleaner, but if you were sleeping with Tommy you’d wake up with at least four pee spots on you. In the wild they mark their dens to ward off predators and let other cheetahs know it’s their territory.
We take our ocelot to Texas every year and we took our baby cheetah on a private plane to New York for an appearance on Good Morning America. The cats allow us to do that because they’re used to us. We work very hard acclimatizing them to being crated and riding in vehicles. Yes, I can handle Savannah on a leash almost like a dog, but how many dog owners do you know whose dog is afraid to get in the car? We would finish up our work here and then pop Savanna in a crate, put her in the car and take her for a ride, just to get her used to it, even if it’s just a quick trip to grab dinner or go to the post office. When we were raising Tom, all of us would stop at Taco Bell so often that the people who worked there got used to us. The first few times, they’d crowd the windows to try and see and eventually it just became, “Oh yeah, it’s the cheetah people again.”
We don’t encourage any play behavior between the baby cheetahs and us. Tom, our male, is now five years old and 120 pounds and we definitely don’t want him thinking he can play with us. So at around six to eight weeks we introduce the baby cheetahs to a puppy that will become their playmate for the next two years. They can run around like crazy and get all their energy out, and at the end of the day, when they’re calmer, we can work on building the relationship between cheetah and human. Most of the time we get mutts from the pound. Once, one of our trainers wanted a puppy, so she picked one out from the pound and her puppy lived with a cheetah for the next two years. When the cheetahs are around 2 years old, we separate them from the puppy, since that’s the age in the wild when they become more solitary. The cheetahs—especially the females—are solitary animals and they don’t want the dog around anymore, so we’ll find someone to adopt it.
Elephant Team Leader Cecil Jackson, Jr. and Jati
I’ve been at the zoo going on 38 years. The Zoo Academy had just started when I began working here during the summers with my dad when I was 14. My dad was a zookeeper here for 50 years. He worked with cats, elephants, and was in charge of the primate department as well. A lot of the keepers here worked under my dad. Ron Evans, Vicki Ulrich, Matt Miller, Rickey Kinley—they were all students who became full-time keepers because they were so passionate about animals. I was hired full-time right after I graduated from high school. When my dad retired because of a stroke, I was put in charge of the elephants.
My dad has Alzheimer’s now, lives in a nursing home, but I brought him to Mai Thai’s 40th birthday party in May. I wasn’t sure how he was going to act, but all these memories came flooding back to him. At that time, dad hadn’t been to the zoo for 12, 13 years. We rolled [him] over to Sabu’s side of the elephant exhibit and he began to talk to Sabu. Sabu’s ears perked up and he came right over and started acknowledging [him]. Dad started putting him through his commands and I didn’t say a word. Then I brought dad around to see the females and Mai Thai immediately came over and put her trunk right in his lap.
Animals are very honest. If they’re in a bad mood, they let you know right away. Working with animals is like working with kids. I have three beautiful daughters. I know that if my daughters are coming up and talking to me, that means they’re not mad at me, they love me, and they love being around me. Just like the animals. I work with elephants. It’s a big animal, weighs 10,000 pounds. I have to make sure that animal isn’t knocking people down.
Elephants live in a matriarchal society. The herd follows the matriarch, who knows where to find food and water. The males drift in and out to breed. A mommy elephant will smack a juvenile with her trunk if he’s misbehaving. Little male elephants are called punks—they’re like the bullies, taking over, pushing others around. Then a big female comes over and whomps them with her trunk. Well, after a few good whoopins, the females push the males out of the herd and the males learn to stay on the periphery. Females know their pecking order, but they’re not pushed out of the herd.
I live on a 100-acre farm. We practically have a zoo at home, including horses, donkeys, and dogs. The other day I left the zoo at 5, got home at 5:30, and Bush Hogged a field for the horses to eat hay until 10 p.m. that night. Working with animals is truly my life. But I know how to unplug. I care about the animals when I leave the zoo, but I don’t really talk about work at home. My brother, Gilbert, works here too. So when my brother and I get together and bull-crap about the zoo, my wife listens in so she can learn what’s going on.
Thane [Maynard, zoo director] might get after me about something, and then turn around and have lunch with me the next day. I really don’t care what people think about me. I love what I’m doing and I’m going to do it. I have a responsibility and it’s the care and well-being of my animals.
Ungulate Department Team Leader Paul Reinhart and Suci, a 9-year-old Sumatran rhinoceros
It was not a high-tech process that determined which zoo would get the first Sumatran rhino. From what I’ve heard, five zoos—Cincinnati, Bronx, San Diego, L.A., and Miami—drew straws. We got the short straw, so the first pair came here. I cannot describe how fortunate I’ve been. It’s made my life. The Sumatran rhinos are an outstanding, fascinating group of animals and they’re desperately in need of help and I find myself very passionate about them.
The first female, Mahatu, came here on June 5, 1989. I remember it because I was here on my off day to help unload her and my wife went into labor. My son, Clinton, was born June 5, 1989. So I really have an attachment with them. I’ve been here for all three of the Sumatran rhino births: Andalas (2001), Suci (2004), and Harapan (2007), and I was fortunate enough to be in Sumatra when the fourth baby, Andatu, was born last year. I’ve been present for the only four births in the last hundred years.
When Emi was ready to deliver the first time, I was paying close attention, making sure senior staff knew what was going on. We were being quiet, letting Emi do her thing like spraying urine, vocalizing, and walking around. In the wild, she would try to hide herself from predators in a good comfortable place. She delivered a male calf in the afternoon on September 13, 2001. There are cameras over the stall, so people in the CREW building [the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Family Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife] could view, but I was here in the [rhino] building. I was watching stealthily so as not to upset her. Pacing around like an expectant dad. When I finally went home, around midnight, that’s when the full impact hit me. We had been working on this for so many years. This was like the sixth time Emi had been pregnant. It’s not easy getting these animals to breed because the males can be aggressive to the females. Dr. Terri Roth needs to be mentioned because she is an incredible leader and scientist and she’s directly responsible for these animals procreating.
Andalas was born in Cincinnati and then was moved to Sumatra in 2010, where he was paired with a female, Ratu, for breeding. When Dr. Roth asked me if I wanted to be part of the birth team at the Sumatran rhino sanctuary in Indonesia, I said, “Heck yes!” Andalas’s and Ratu’s calf, Andatu, was born on June 23, 2012. His name is a combination of his parents', but also means “gift of God” in the native language. He was the first rhino born in captivity in Sumatra. These animals are incredibly endangered because of poaching and deforestation. Over the next 100 years these rhinos will either creep back to stable numbers or will go quickly off the cliff to extinction. It is truly a now or never moment.
On July 21, the Cincinnati Zoo announced plans to try to breed siblings Suci and Harapan. They are the last two Sumatran rhinos in the United States.
Senior Aviculturist Rickey Kinley with BB, a blue-breasted kingfisher
I grew up in Loveland and would play in the Little Miami River all the time. I’d catch frogs and turtles, go fishing, and I’d sneak animals like bugs and salamanders and snakes into the house. If she knew half the stuff I snuck in, my mother would have had a fit. I would make little ecosystems in jars, and I was a bookworm—in the library all the time reading about animals. So I knew a lot when I started at the Zoo Academy, even more than some of the keepers. I was accepted into the Zoo Academy program in 1992, the summer before my junior year of high school. But I was nervous about going. You know, typical teenager stuff, I didn’t want to leave my friends. Well, that summer our house caught fire. It wasn’t so bad that we lost everything but there was enough damage that we had to move and we went back to the city to live with my grandfather. So I thought, Well, I’m here now. I may as well go. It turned out to be one the best things that ever could have happened. We worked in every area of the zoo and I missed only one day of school those two years at the Academy. I got hired as a seasonal keeper in 1993 and I’ve been here ever since.
Birds do a lot of social interaction that is different from other animals. Certain species of macaws actually blush, which you can see if they don’t have a lot of feathers around their head and neck. It’s an emotional response just like it is for humans. Some birds will do eye pinning [expanding and contracting the pupil] when they’re excited or upset. Birds in general have more rods and cones than mammals. That allows them to see more colors and higher definition. Some can see ultraviolet light. Birds have larger eyes in proportion to head size than any other animal. The largest eye in the animal world is on the ostrich. Birds have to be able to see things well and process information fast in order to navigate the world as a flyer. Most birds have to be able to see a predator and be able to find small things to eat. Oxpeckers like to hang around large mammals because they pick fleas and ticks from their ears and necks, and in turn, the oxpecker will alert the mammal to predators in the area.
Animals are designed to read body language. In the bird world, predators almost always strike from above, so movement above them makes them uncomfortable. Birds almost always have to go to the ground to eat, so that makes them vulnerable. If another bird is coming after them, the strategy is to hide or get above it. Pigeons will always try to get above a peregrine falcon, which dives down at its prey. Cooper’s hawks will fly through bushes to get prey, so smaller birds hide and go silent. It sounds weird for a bird to eat another bird, but birds are a group like mammals are a group. A hawk eating a sparrow is equivalent to a cheetah eating a rabbit. When we perch up their cages, we make sure they can perch as high as possible. They generally don’t like fast movements or strange things around them. We had Buddy, our Magellanic penguin, out one day when we were doing a news spot and the crew used one of those big furry boom microphones. It scared the living daylights out of him and he went tearing out of there. He just didn’t want it above his head. In the wild, if something is different or changes that’s usually a threat. For an animal, if something is different, make it go away and then everything is fine. In a wild environment, you want things to be consistent.
How do we prevent birds from flying away during our Wings of Wonder show? Very good training and practice. They could fly away at any time, but they want the reward. You could decide not to go to work, right? But you want the reward of going to work, whether it’s the paycheck, or you enjoy it, or your coworkers are cool. With a bird show, you train the birds by giving them a great benefit, like a mouse, if they fly into their crate at the end of the show. Occasionally they fly off. Species that are prone to do that don’t get used.
A common trick at bird shows is to take a raven or crow and do what’s called the dollar trick. An audience member will be asked to hold up a dollar and the raven flies up to that person, grabs the dollar, brings it back to the stage and sticks it in a box to raise money for conservation. Occasionally when the raven flies into the audience, the person will be holding a turkey sandwich or will have dropped some popcorn. The raven, being one of the more intelligent species, will drop the dollar and take the food. They’re so smart, you can never use that bird for that trick again. Because once they know there’s food, they’ll always go for that instead of the dollar. You basically have to retire the bird from the show after that.
Two groups of birds are considered the most intelligent: Ravens and crows and a type of parrot from New Zealand called a kea. They use tools and are extremely good at problem-solving. They can learn how to go through a chain of challenges, just to get a treat. We have to padlock the kea cages, otherwise they’ll escape. Usually a sign of intelligence in animals is [their] ability to live around human habitation. Squirrels are a good example. They’ll take granola bars out of purses. In the case of the kea, its natural habitat is very sparse so they have to be creative to find food.
In 2000, I went to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago to release blue and gold macaws into the wild. The island was decimated of its wild macaw population mostly due to the pet trade. When people catch them for sale it’s dramatic. They find a nest, chop down the tree, and any of the babies that survive are raised and sold as pets. But chopping down the tree often kills the birds, so they were basically eradicated from the island.
Returning captive macaws to the island wasn’t working, they weren’t breeding, so we got a permit to trap some wild blue and gold macaws in Guyana and we moved them to Trinidad and Tobago. They had a better chance of survival because they were already wild. That’s been very successful. It has turned into a big campaign to increase awareness and national pride about blue and gold macaws.
Primate Team Leader Ron Evans and Jomo, a 22-year-old male gorilla
As a kid I had a lot of pets. You name it, I’ve had it. My parents took me to see the King Kong remake when I was a kid and when the gorilla is shot and killed at the end, I had what must have been my first conservationist thought: Why didn’t it end differently? At 10 years old it was awful that he died, but that was the seed of conservation in my mind. I got my start here at the Zoo Academy. You should have seen the look on my guidance counselor’s face at Walnut Hills when I said I intended to start a vocational program at the zoo. I’d always liked tropical fish and there was an aquarium here at the time, but one day the gorilla keeper needed some extra help, so I pitched in. I took one look at the gorillas and I didn’t know what a fish was anymore. I started volunteering with the gorillas every weekend. I was the first Zoo Academy junior they allowed to work with gorillas. Thane Maynard likes to tell people that my parents brought me to the zoo at 16 and left me here.
We have 25 different species of primate here, but the gorillas are a cornerstone of our collection. I’m a member of the North American Gorilla Species Survival Plan Management Group. We manage gorillas cooperatively with other zoos and together we track all 360 gorillas in the United States. We know their DNAs, their personalities, and we manage transfers. As part of the Gorilla Behavioral Advisory Group, I field requests from other zoos and help them through whatever challenges they may be facing. I’ve also traveled to other zoos to help with the social management of their gorillas.
In gorilla society, family groups are made up of one dominant male—called the silverback—and several females. Our silverback, Jomo, is the biggest A of type A personality you can get. In his mind, it’s a Jomo-centric world and we’re taking up space in it. Most silverbacks are hardwired to have this dominant personality. They’re highly intelligent, they have to provide for and protect their family group, they have to compete for the females, and they serve as group referees. In fact, the number one cause of death in gorillas in captivity is heart disease.
Two of our females, Asha and Anju, came from different zoos. Asha is actually Gladys’ half sister. She’s very confident, incredibly smart and clever. When she arrived at our zoo, she just walked in like she’d lived here all her life. Anju is the polar opposite. She was born at the Pittsburgh Zoo—although we don’t hold that against her—and I call her Princess Anju because she was used to being treated with kid gloves. When she came here she was nervous without her family group and we had to be very patient and positively reinforce desired behavior. We’ve brought her around and now she and Asha are best buddies. They hold hands and sleep together inside at night.
We do a lot of operant conditioning with the gorillas. We withhold grapes from their diet so they always have to work for them. If I give Jomo a request to show me his hand and he does, he gets a grape. Jomo will show us his mouth, chest, hips, feet, hands, and he’ll even let me do a cardiac exam on him. And he knows he can’t act all Jomo-ish if he wants me to feed him his morning yogurt.
Jungle Trails Head Keeper Vicki Ulrich and Lana, a 28-year-old orangutan
My day beings at 6 a.m. with a walk through of the Jungle Trails area and buildings so I can check to see that everybody is alive and looks healthy. I check the orangutans, gibbons, bonobos, the lion tail macaques, the lemurs, the Mueller’s gibbons, and the birds. Once you start turning on lights, everybody wakes up. Then I get my boots on and start cleaning.
The orangutans get a lot of operant conditioning with certain body parts so the vet can come in and look at them without having to knock them out. The orangs can’t reach their whole arm out of their cages, they can only reach their hand out, so we can get pretty close to them, as opposed to the gibbons who can get their whole arm out. If we ask an orang for an arm, it will put its whole arm up against the mesh of the enclosure and we can condition them with a fake syringe to learn to take an injection. It’s just like taking your kid in to get a shot except they don’t scream. They’re relaxed and calm.
[Primates] get very bored. We do a lot of enrichment behind the scenes that the public can’t see. The public likes a natural setting and you can only put so many plastic bottles in there for the animals to play with before the yard looks like a garbage dump. We’ll take food and wrap it in newspaper and put it in a cardboard box with straw and wrap up the cardboard box for them to open. They’re like kids on Christmas morning. They grab a box and run into a corner by themselves and open it to find Cheerios or peanuts. They have a blast doing that. We’ll toilet paper the inside of their cages like you would someone’s house—and they love it. Our female orangutan, Lana, grabs handfuls of the paper and twists herself around in it [until] she looks like a mummy. We give them Gatorade bottles with Kool-Aid or juice and we put the lid on and they grab it just like we do and twist the top off and drink it. Lana also likes to clean. We giver her a rubber tub full of water and a couple of drops of baby shampoo to make it bubble, and she’ll scrub the walls, her hands, feet, and arms. She dumps out the tub when asked and we’ll give her clean water to rinse herself off.
Their enclosures have automatic drinkers, called Lixits. If an animal puts her mouth on it, there’s a pin in the middle that toggles and allows water to come out, so they always have access to water, even if it’s always flowing. Lana likes the sound of running water, so she’ll jam in something hard like a carrot or sweet potato or celery so there’s water running all the time. If I hear that the water’s running, I can be halfway down the hall and say, “Turn that water off!” And the next thing I hear are the pipes rattling as the water is kicked off.
Orangs in general are really smart and we’re always doing some kind of training or operant conditioning with them. If I walk by, I can say to Lana, “Give me your belly,” and she will and I’ll scratch it really quick and give her a treat. If I have a piece of candy in my pocket, I’ll give her a piece of candy. She loves Skittles, but any kind of hard candy. They don’t get it all the time and they don’t get it every day. If we’re working on a new behavior with Lana over a few days—like turning around to show us her back—as soon as she has a breakthrough, we’ll give her a piece of candy or gum and you can see the light bulb click. That candy is so special to them; they know they did the right thing when they get it.
The public doesn’t realize that all the animals, even the birds, on Jungle Trails have names. We celebrate their birthdays. They’re so much like family. It’s hard to take one of your animals to another zoo and leave it. It’s like a child going off to college. Ron [Evans] and I went to El Paso to bring Butch, a male orangutan, down there for breeding and to bring Henry here to Cincinnati. We hadn’t had Butch very long, maybe a year, but we were still attached. In El Paso, a call went out on the radio that Henry was leaving for Cincinnati and that anyone who wanted to say good-bye could come over the next couple of hours to do so. Within minutes, all sorts of keepers came over—not just the primate team. People came out of the woodwork to say good-bye. That wouldn’t necessarily happen at the Cincinnati Zoo; the bug and elephant keepers probably wouldn’t come say good-bye to a primate. But in El Paso, I had to lock myself in one of their offices because I was crying so much. I thought, This is really sad. Henry had been there all his life. I felt bad taking him, even though it was for a good reason. It’s really tough to lose an animal.
Curator of Invertebrates Winton Ray with a Malayan Leaf katydid
I started out as a volunteer in spring of 2002 and was here for about six months when one of the keepers needed foot surgery that required a leave of several months. The hardware distribution company I had worked for had gone out of business, and I had just started a new job with a Pepsi distributor but didn’t like it, so when the zoo offered me a temporary job at the Insectarium, I took it. I was promoted to head keeper in 2008, to team leader in 2011, and to curator in April of this year.
I grew up with a general interest in animals but it wasn’t until I read in a national magazine about the bullet ant they have at the zoo that I became really interested. I thought, Wow—I didn’t know there was such a thing! I didn’t walk in being comfortable with insects—tarantulas took some getting used to—I just learned as much as I could from the other keepers about how to handle the insects with respect and care so I don’t injure them. There’s no biological reason for me not to put an insect like a Malayan katydid on my face. I use it to disarm people and allay their fears during keeper talks when people want to stand six feet back. I try to educate people and get them excited about invertebrates but it’s always a tough sell. It’s too hard to name them, they’re not personable, and people don’t feel warm and cozy about them. Most people feel negative things about insects. But they’re fascinating. For example, leaf cutters have such a strong urge to cut that we have to give them fresh leaves 355 out of 365 days a year. If we don’t give them enough, or they’re not interested in what we give them, they’ll cut the decorative plastic plants and cords to the cameras in their exhibit.
The Malayan leaf katydid is one of the largest katydid species in the world; it’s five times larger than our native katydid. They live in the same rainforest as the Asian elephants, king cobras, and Sumatran rhino. A rainforest is a community and there are animals living at all levels. The giant spiny leaf insect is also native to Malaysia. Katydids eat primarily produce—cucumber, apple, and romaine lettuce. The giant spiny leaf insects eat pyracantha leaves that are grown on zoo grounds. Pyracantha is in the rose family and it’s very thorny and stays green year round. I feel bad for some insects because they come from habitats that are under threat. All insects native to the rainforest of Southeast Asia are in danger because of clear-cutting for the harvesting and production of palm oil.*
I’ve been involved in bringing in the Eastern lubber grasshopper, which is a large, colorful grasshopper native to the southeastern United States. It’s pretty rare for that species to be maintained at zoos because it’s difficult to breed them. We know a lot about the big animals, like elephants, and you’re always going to have the exotic animals, but it’s also important to show our own native animals and natural history as well. We’re also involved with the effort to increase the numbers of American burying beetle. It’s a really beautiful black and orange beetle that used to range all over the central and eastern U.S., but it’s been declining for more than a century. It’s not like the forest will collapse without it, but it’s a very cool animal. The Cincinnati Zoo was the first to breed the American burying beetle back in the 1990s. We stopped working with them for about a decade and then got involved with reintroducing them to the Fernald Preserve. Fernald was a uranium processing plant during the Cold War and a former Superfund cleanup site. In less than two decades, Fernald has gone from one of the most polluted places on earth to a nature preserve, and we’ll be conducting the beetle releases [there] over the next five years. Wildlife doesn’t care what we leave behind, they find a way to move back.
Cincinnati has some really old neighborhoods, with old trees and earth that hasn’t been disturbed, so you can find all kinds of great stuff, especially in the summer, when everything is reaching adulthood. The stag beetle is a good example. They’re found the world over and the males have these long stag-like mandibles. We’ll get calls from people finding things in their backyard and saying, “This must have escaped from the zoo, because I’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it!”
*To check out brands that use palm oil in their products and to learn which companies harvest it sustainably, go to cincinnatizoo.org and download their new sustainable shopper app.
Originally published in the September 2013 issuePhotographs by Michael Wilson
View more photos from our shoot at the Cincinnati Zoo
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