Fur thee well: Population management programs force relocations that affect keepers' emotional bonds

Fur thee well: Population management programs force relocations that affect keepers' emotional bonds

February 1st, 2015 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Amy Solis feeds a grape on a stick to Wen-Dee, a red panda that is part of a Species Survival Plan at the Chattanooga Zoo. The zoo has received red pandas transferred from other zoos in the SSP program, a practice designed to give the species the best chance at survival and growth around the world.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

At first glance, a black rhinoceros does not invite many obvious comparisons to a golden retriever.

The rhino weighs more than 1,700 pounds, the retriever less than 75. One has a pair of horns and an African passport; the other has squeak toys and a regular appointment at the groomer.

But ask zookeeper Stacy Laberdee to describe the rhinos she worked with for seven years, and the gap between them narrows dramatically.

"[Rhinos] whine when they're not being paid attention to. They love to be scratched and rubbed down," she says. "They just love attention. They get frisky and love to play with you."

An 8-week-old red wolf cub licks its mother at the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center, which participates in the red wolf Species Survival Plan. The animals are the eighth most-endangered species in the world.

An 8-week-old red wolf cub licks its mother...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Three years ago, Laberdee, 37, was hired as the general curator at the Chattanooga Zoo, but for the bulk of her 17-year career, she was at the Kansas City Zoo, working with everything from giraffes and lions to elephants. But it was the rhinos that she fell head over hoof for, especially a 7-year-old named Kipenzi -- Swahili for "precious" or "darling."

"She was just very sweet," Laberdee recalls. "She was shy and a little timid about things, so you liked to coddle her and baby her."

But then she had to give her up.

Black rhinoceroses -- which are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature -- are among 450 species managed under a Species Survival Plan, a program overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Under an SSP, animals are moved between collections in the interest of maximizing the overall health and genetic robustness of the entire captive population.

The Species Survival Plans program was developed in 1981 as a way to ensure that the more than 200 AZA-accredited institutions -- including the Chattanooga Zoo and Tennessee Aquarium -- work together to approve and execute transfers that ensure the long-survival of captive populations. For many species, these relocations are mandatory once approved by SSP leaders, who are elected from the staff at AZA facilities that exhibit the animals.

Senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee feeds fish to penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium. The animals arrived in 2007 through a long-term loan agreement with SeaWorld, and every other chick hatched at the aquarium is returned to SeaWorld. The exchange lowers the chance of inbreeding within each of the colonies, and newly hatched birds can breed sooner than if they waited for a genetically compatible mate in Chattanooga.

Senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee feeds fish to penguins...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

About 60 species in Chattanooga's wildlife institutions fall under the management of an SSP, from the river otters and caiman lizards at the aquarium to the jaguars and chimpanzees at the zoo. The plans maintain a species' health in captivity, but they also increase public awareness of wildlife conservation issues, help draft animal-care manuals and, when possible, contribute to efforts to reintroduce species into the wild, says AZA spokesman Rob Vernon.

For the keepers who care for these species, however, the moves can be heart-wrenching, even if they're well-intentioned.

Two years after they started working together, Laberdee received word that the SSP for black rhinos had decided it was time to transfer Kipenzi. As the first-generation offspring of a wild-caught rhino, her genes would be an especially valuable addition to the limited pool available in captivity, and the SSP coordinators decided to pair her with Pete, a male housed more than 1,800 miles away at the Portland Zoo in Portland, Ore.

Less than 5,000 black rhinoceroses remain in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Even though Laberdee recognized the relocation was in the best interest of the species, she felt bittersweet watching Kipenzi's crate being lowered by crane into the waiting truck.

"I didn't want her to go but, at the same time, you have to look past that and just be excited that they're getting the opportunity to be in a better place," she says. "[Zookeeping] is definitely a passion, and you devote your whole life to it, but you need to have some degree of professional distance.

"That's not to say that you can't have a heart -- I think having a heart is what makes you a great keeper -- but you have to be realistic too, and understand that this is part of the job of working at a zoo. You don't get to keep everything."

Safeguarding the future

Some of the most well-known successes in bringing species back from the brink were made possible, in part, through the oversight of an SSP, Vernon says. In the 1980s, the California condor and red wolf were declared "extinct in the wild" -- the International Union for Conservation of Nature's most-threatened status -- but were bolstered in captivity through SSP programs. Both species since have been reintroduced to their natural habitats, the red wolf because of local efforts to save it.

The Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center at the base of Lookout Mountain has been a member of the SSP for red wolves since 1996. When conservation efforts began in 1987 and the remaining wild wolves were placed in captivity, only 17 individuals were known to exist. Now, there are about 300, says the center's Director of Wildlife Tish Gailmard, who also serves on the SSP's management committee.

"The red wolf is the eighth most-endangered mammal in the world," she says. "It's an extremely successful program."

There are 44 facilities in the red wolf SSP network, and wolves from Chattanooga have been sent all over the country. Because those transfers often happen quickly, the staff is trained to maintain a mostly hands-off approach to interacting with the animals.

"You do develop a bond, regardless of how long the animal stays, but for the betterment of the species, we know the animal may need to move," Gailmard says. "Usually, it's a happy thing for us. We're sad to see the animal go, but we're happy because it may be going to a breeding situation or going to be a companion to another animal that needs a companion."

Not all SSPs manage animals that are on the ropes. Captive populations of bobcats, moose and great white pelicans also are managed, despite being designated as "least concern" by the IUCN

However, conservation status is only one factor when deciding whether a species should be placed under an SSP, Vernon says. Recommendations to bring a species under management are made after considering the animal's research potential, its educational value, biological uniqueness and whether AZA-member facilities have interest in exhibiting it.

Once a species is placed under an SSP, however, the fundamental goal is to ensure that the captive population will survive long-term. To achieve that, SSP coordinators must think like chess players, considering not only the immediate impact a transfer will have on an individual animal but how it will affect generations of its offspring.

As was the case with Laberdee's black rhinos, sparser populations may be encouraged to grow by bringing in new or more compatible breeding partners. Especially prolific pairs might be separated to avoid oversaturating the gene pool. Littermates may be sent to other facilities to lessen the chance of inbreeding.

Coming and going

There were several SSP-recommended transfers to and from the Chattanooga Zoo in the last year.

Its snow leopard cub, Maliha, was sent to the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I.; a red panda, Maina, came here from the Oklahoma City Zoo; and Barkley, a Fennec fox, was transferred to the Warner Park facility from St. Louis. This year, Laberdee says, another SSP recommendation should bring a snow leopard to the zoo to replace Kasimir, a female who died last summer after raising two litters of cubs with her mate, Czar.

SSP leaders do not make their decisions in a vacuum, Vernon says. The familiarity keepers have with their charges is crucial to deciding whether a move is warranted -- or even safe.

"A good genetic match might be too old or too young for the pairing, which might lead to partner rejection," he says. "A good genetic match might also pair a physically robust female with a less-robust male or a naturally-aggressive animal with a naturally-passive animal, and curators would try to be proactive in avoiding a relationship failure."

Variously vulnerable

The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a "red list" that evaluates the conservation status of plant and animal species. The following are the classifications.

* Extinct: No reasonable doubt that the last individual of a species has died.

* Extinct in the wild: Species is known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or a naturalized population outside its previous range.

* Critically endangered: Species faces an extremely high risk of extinction.

* Endangered: Species faces a very high risk of extinction.

* Vulnerable: Species faces a high risk of extinction.

* Near threatened: Species doesn't meet qualifications for critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, but is close to meeting them.

* Least concern: Species doesn't meet qualifications for critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, and is widespread and abundant.

Local Fear

Here are some of the animals in local facilities that are managed by Species Survival Plans.

Tennessee Aquarium

Critically endangered

* Arakan forest turtle

* Bog turtle

* Chinese three-striped box turtle

* Indochinese box turtle

* Madagascar spider tortoise

* Radiated tortoise

Endangered

* Black-breasted leaf turtle

* Four-eyed turtle

* Red-fronted macaw

* Spiny turtle

* Spotted turtle

* Wood turtle

Chattanooga Zoo

Critically endangered

* Bali mynah

* Chinese alligator

* Cotton-top tamarin

* Radiated tortoise

Endangered

* Chimpanzee

* Francois' langur

* Grey-crowned crane

* Pied tamarin

* Black-handed spider monkey

* Snow leopard

REFLECTION RIDING ARBORETUM AND NATURE CENTURE

Critically endangered

Red wolf

When considering a transfer, Vernon says, the AZA also accounts for the rapport that can develop between keepers and the animals. Not wanting a beloved animal to leave won't stop a transfer from occurring, but keepers with especially strong bonds occasionally will be allowed to accompany the animal to its new home to ease the transition to a new caretaker.

Even if they will miss an animal they've worked with, Vernon says, keepers can take solace from the knowledge that it's destined for someone who is just as committed to its well-being.

"Ultimately, they know that, if that animal is going to another AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium, it is going to receive the best care possible from people who are equally as passionate as they are."

Trading turtles

Not all keepers allow strong emotional bonds with individual animals to distract from their duty to the species.

In 2007, the Tennessee Aquarium made national headlines when news broke that it had hatched a four-eyed turtle, an endangered species so named for the pair of white "eyespot" markings on the back of its head. According to Associated Press coverage of the hatching, there were only about 20 four-eyed turtles known to be in captivity when the aquarium's hatchling was born.

At the time, there was no SSP for four-eyed turtles, but the news led other zoos and aquariums to offer to their own four-eyeds to the aquarium in hopes of increasing the captive population, says aquarium Curator of Forests Dave Collins.

"People who actually were holding the species and never had any success contacted us," Collins says. "They said, 'Hey, would you like ours? You're having success, and we'd like to contribute to that effort.'"

Since 2011, the four-eyed turtles, along with spiny, keeled box and Arakan forest turtles, all have been placed under SSPs coordinated by Tennessee Aquarium Senior Herpetologist Bill Hughes. The aquarium has continued its breeding success with these species -- more than one-third of the 44 four-eyed turtles in captivity now are in its collection -- and Hughes' transfer recommendations through the SSP programs have sent many hatchlings to other facilities from Texas to New York.

But unlike some keepers, he has no emotional quibbles about sending them away. Apparently, it's a herpetologist thing.

"That doesn't seem to be the case for most people who work with reptiles," Hughes says. "Anyway, I don't take [personal bonds] into consideration."

A better place

Just across the plaza from Hughes' office, however, one of his co-workers in the aquarium's Ocean Journey Building experienced much deeper pangs last year when saying goodbye to some of her charges.

For the last eight years, senior aviculturist Loribeth Lee has worked with the aquarium's colony of gentoo and macaroni penguins, both of which are managed under SSPs. In that time, she's come to know them better than almost any other staff member. Moving down a glass-enclosed walkway overlooking their enclosure, she points to various birds and offers a string of insights into their personalities.

A squat macaroni named Iggy, she says, is the colony's Joe Pesci -- a small, aggressive bird single-handedly holding off four much larger gentoos unwilling to challenge him for his nesting spot. Further down, gentoo breeding pair Zeus and Pebbles are "an easygoing couple." A macaroni named Sweet Pea is as gentle as her name implies. Blue -- another gentoo -- is "a very nervous bird," she says.

Working with penguins is far from glamorous -- Lee describes it as "smelly" and "labor intensive" -- and the two hours a day of cleaning it requires often come with a few bites thrown in for good measure. But her love for the birds is unequivocal.

"Just knowing they're happy and healthy and that what I'm doing immediately impacts them is very rewarding," Lee says. "I like knowing exactly what I'm willing to give each day directly impacts them."

The aquarium's penguins arrived in 2007 through a long-term loan agreement with SeaWorld, which still owns many of the birds. Although both macaronis and gentoos fall under SSP management, both facilities agreed that every other chick hatched at the aquarium belongs to SeaWorld.

Last Easter, the first exchange took place, and Lee had to say farewell to 11 chicks that were loaded onto a truck bound for Orlando, Fla., and ultimately to SeaWorld San Diego. Although the transfer wasn't based on an SSP recommendation, Lee says, the motivation behind it was similar. Both colonies would lower the chance of inbreeding, and newly hatched birds would be able to breed much sooner than if they remained in Chattanooga, awaiting a genetically compatible mate.

Knowing the move was in their best interest was a balm, but it wasn't a cure-all. There were a few tears shed in the process, but Lee thinks she knows a way she can silence her still-thrumming heartstrings.

"I hope that, in the future, I can find out where certain birds are ... and maybe be able to go see them," she says. "I think seeing them in a new exhibit and happy, healthy and thriving would be a good thing -- to know that that little bird got started in Chattanooga, and now it's here, but it's doing just fine."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.