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Zoos & Aquariums: More than Meets the Eye

Red Panda

Red Panda loving his free reign of the tree branches at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.

June is National Zoo & Aquarium month! This month is not only intended to encourage more people to visit zoos & aquariums, but also to raise awareness about the role they play in our society. The work of Zoos & Aquariums happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year- the conservation, education and research happening at these facilities around the world never rests. The need for the work they do is becoming more & more important every day. The future of endangered species as well as educating individuals about conservation depends upon their continuing efforts and it just so happens that Zoos & Aquariums are one of the best ways to present this information to the curious public.

Prairie Dog out for a climb at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

Prairie Dog out for a climb at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

I am lucky to be a part of an amazing group of volunteers at a local zoo. As a zoo volunteer, I quickly learned zoos (& aquariums) are so much more than just a place that’s fun for guests to visit. Yes, they are marketed as family friendly, tourism destinations but they have so much more to offer guests & wildlife of the world!

Zoos & Aquariums are working hard to establish memorable visitor experiences AND excellent animal care procedures. For visitors, this includes incorporating interactive and even hands-on programs in order to help build an appreciation & a stronger connection between guests and the wildlife all while in a fun and informal setting. For the animals, this means introducing more naturalistic enclosures & implementing animal enrichment exercises so they can demonstrate behavior that is common for their particular species, not to mention top of the line veterinary care when needed.

Orangutan at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk

Orangutan at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk

In my role as an education volunteer at the zoo, we work hard to ‘interpret’ the animal collection to our guests of all ages and engage them in conversation about wildlife adaptations, environmental & conservation efforts that are being made with the particular species to better enhance their visitor experience allow them to walk away with an enjoyable learning experience.

“We believe in a better future for all living things. We envision a world where all people respect, value and conserve wildlife and wild places.” –The Association of Aquarium & Zoos

Dog Face Puffer at the Denver Zoo in Colorado

Dog Face Puffer at the Denver Zoo in Colorado

Association of Zoos & Aquariums assures that the highest standards of animal care are met for accredited facilities. More than 200 AZA accredited institutions meet the always evolving top-of-the-line standards & guidelines for animal care & management. These standards are set to facilitate and promote education, care & conservation of animals.

Looking for something to do this summer? Consider a trip to the zoo or aquarium! You’re sure to have a fun time & learn some new things along the way. After your visit, challenge yourself or your children to come up with some ways you help the wildlife in & around your neighborhood.

Thanks for reading! Enjoy the Summer,
Sam W.

Zoos Are Not Prisons. They Improve the Lives of Animals.

Porcupine Problems – How to Handle a Pet that has been Quilled

PorcupineDogs love to run, play and explore. Their rambunctious ramblings and curiousity may well be some of your favorite attributes about your pet. Personally, I love to watch my dogs off-leash in the countryside where they can run free, roll around and really live life to it’s fullest, even if it’s only for a few hours each week. While we love to let them roam and investigate new places and things, there is always the possibilty that they may run into something unfamiliar or even dangerous in the wild frontier.  A single encounter with today’s creature of topic can result in a face full of painful pricks. not to mention anguish (yours and your dogs) and the potential for a hefty vet bill.  Let’s talk a little about the prickly porcupine. Read More »

Skunks as Pets

Friendly SkunkThough most people try to avoid encounters with skunks, there are those who actually seek out these black and white mayhem-makers as companion pets, comparing them in personality to cats, dogs, and ferrets. Skunks are rising in popularity due to their intelligence, carefree personalities, and (believe it or not) cleanliness. Pennsylvania and most other states require a permit to keep a captive skunk as a pet. Before deciding to bring a skunk into your family, do your research and be sure you can handle their requirements. Read More »

The Domestic Ferret’s Interesting Relatives

TayraMammalogists consider the Domestic Ferret to be a distinct species (Mustela furo) and “domesticated” in the true sense of the word.  Most ferret owners can easily see, however, that 2,000+ years of captive breeding has not erased all traces of their pets’ origins.  Today I’d like to give you a brief overview of the Domestic Ferret’s wild relatives.

What Sort of Creature is the Domestic Ferret?

The Domestic Ferret is classified within the Order Carnivora, Family Mustelidae.  Within the Mustelidae we find 75-80 species of Weasels, Otters, Skunks, Badgers, Wolverines and related animals (skunks have been re-classified by some taxonomists).  Read More »

Bouncing Baby Bunnies – Wild Rabbits in the Spring

We all know that Spring is prime time for many wild animals to bring their babies into the world. We can see new fawns, bear cubs, hatchling birds, and many other new arrivals soon after they make their way into the world. Last year Frank Indiviglio wrote an article on “orphaned” babies in the Spring and what to do (or not do) about them, but one animal that may require a little more info is one of the most common babies found in backyards this time of year…baby rabbits, or “kits”.

People often mistake young rabbits as helpless and abandoned, ususally because their found alone and in the open. Several times each year we have patrons that present us with wild rabbits they come across while mowing the lawn, or that were discovered by the family dog or cat and rescued before becoming a mid-morning snack. While people have the best of intentions, removing the babies from the area where they are found often creates even more of a problem for the little guys. Read More »

Pet Wolves and Wolf Crosses – Social Dilemmas

WolfWolves inspire many emotions in people. Some see them as supernaturally evil forces or destructive predators, others see them as an ultimate symbol of freedom and nature. They are majestic, complex creatures with a long history and a permanent place folklore.

Thousands of years ago, man started to form relationships with these animals. Their ancestors gave rise to the many breeds of dogs we know and love today.  Today, some people choose to bring wolves into their homes and into close contact with human society, crossing them with domestic dogs to create hybrids or even keeping purebred wolves as pets. Though the thought may be appealing to some, bringing an animal with wild bloodlines home to the family may not be the best idea. Read More »

Join A Cause and Help Animals

Poultry Factory FarmAnimal lovers know that animal welfare is one of the most important issues in the world.  I thought I’d blog a little on several organizations that work against animal abuse and mistreatment. You can help the animals in many small ways, whether by giving a little money, choosing not to wear fur, becoming a vegetarian, signing a petition, adopting a pet from a shelter, or even just spreading the word. Without animals, our world would be a very sad place. Please click on at least one of the following links and get involved today! Read More »

Animal Oddities – The Jackalope Disease

Rabbit with Shopes Papilloma VirusThere is an old myth of a creature that roams the plains, a crazy lookin’ cryptid that rolls with the tumbleweeds through the frontier of the southwestern United States. It is only caught by the eyes of a fellow who’s been smiled on by Lady Luck, but it is well known by even those who’ve never been to the southwest. This wily critter has the body of the rabbit, but the antlers of the antelope. It’s been said that its milk is like medicine and its meat like lobster. It is best lured out by using whisky as bait, but it can mimic human voices in order to elude pesky hunters. Sometimes it has been known to be dangerous if cornered! This, my friends, is the jumpin’ jackalope! Or is it?? Read More »

Domestic Cat Origins – Is Your Pet Merely a Tame Wildcat?

European WildcatCat owners quickly notice how closely their pets’ behavior follows that of their wild relatives…in fact, Domestic Cats are classified by many mammalogists as a subspecies of the Wildcat.  Recent research has shed light on the Domestic Cat’s true ancestor and its original time and place of domestication.

Supreme Survivors

Domestic Cats slide seamlessly from indoor to outdoor life, and their adaptability amazes biologists who study feral populations.  Those living in one Australian desert never encounter standing water, yet get along quite well; a group shipwrecked on Marion Island, off the tip of South America, thrives in the shadow of Antarctica – further south than any other non-marine mammal!

Adaptability has helped the 5 subspecies of the Wildcat (Felis sylvestris) to survive in habitats ranging from Chinese deserts to African village outskirts (please see map).

Domestication Theory Overturned

The Near Eastern or African Wildcat (please see photo) has commonly been credited as the ancestor of the Domestic Cat.  Because of its prominence in ancient Egyptian culture, it was believed that Wildcats were the first domesticated there.  Based on archaeological studies, the time of domestication was given as approximately 4,000 years ago. 

The discovery of a 9,500 year-old apparently Domestic Cat in a tomb in Cyprus set the domestication date much further back in time.  Wildcats are not native to Cyprus – the animal is believed to be a Near Eastern Wildcat, taken there by people from Turkey (please see article below).

Wild Ancestor(s)

Each of the 5 Wildcat subspecies – the European, Near Eastern, South African, Central Asian and Chinese Desert – interbreed among themselves and with feral Domestic Cats, so the ancestor of our pets could have been any of these.  Advances in genetic studies, however, has now given us a definitive answer.

Researchers at the US National Cancer Institute and the University of Oxford analyzed DNA from all 5 Wildcat subspecies, and determined that the Near Eastern Wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica) gave rise to the modern day Domestic Cat, and that the site of original domestication, some 10,000 years ago, was in the area known as the “Fertile Crescent”, in what is now Iraq.

This finding coincides nicely with other evidence.  The cat’s association with people came when grains were first being cultivated and stored…the cat’s prowess as a rodent killer would have made it a welcome guest.  Interestingly, Near Eastern Wildcat kittens are relatively easy to tame and even today they often reside near people and interbreed with Domestic Cats.  Not so with all Wildcats – colleagues of mine contend that the European Wildcat (please see photo) is impossible to tame, even when bottle-raised!

What is a Domestic Cat?

African WildcatThe traditional definition of a species is the ability to mate and produce fertile young – Domestic Cats do so with all Wildcat subspecies.  Many taxonomists, therefore, classify the Domestic Cat as a Wildcat subspecies, Felis sylvestris catus, rather than as a distinct species (F. catus).

The odd appearance of a young Bobcat I once trapped led me to believe that one of its parents was a Domestic Cat, but experts are split on this possibility – more on that in the future.


Further Reading

Leopard Cat/Domestic Cat hybrids are popular pets; read more here.

Discovery of the Oldest Known Pet Cat.

Small Wild Cat Conservation

European Wildcat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Aconcagua

African Wildcat image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Sonelle

Small Wild Cats – Overlooked by Conservationists and in Serious Decline

Margay CatTigers and other big cats rival Pandas as “conservation darlings”…so much so, that an Africa-based colleague of mine recently commented that she doubted there was “…a single Cheetah alive that had not been radio-collared and filmed chasing down a Gazelle”!  However, 30 of the 37 known cat species are small, secretive creatures that, lacking the glamour of their larger relatives, are disappearing without generating much notice.   The plight of Chinese Desert Cats, Flat Headed Cats, Iriomote Cats, Kodkods and other rare felines should be of concern to all, especially Domestic Cat owners – after all, many taxonomists consider the Domestic Cat to be a mere subspecies of the African Wild Cat, and not a distinct species at all. Read More »

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