It's a Zoo! Wildlife Conservation Around the Globe—Begins at Home!
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Wildlife Conservation Around the Globe—Begins at Home!

The Phoenix Zoo Helps Native Ferrets Avoid Extinction

Ferret in Hole

Efforts to exterminate prairie dogs throughout the West nearly led to the extinction of black-footed ferrets, the only ferrets native to North America. Now a handful of zoos, including The Phoenix Zoo, are helping this weasel-like predator make a comeback in Arizona and elsewhere!

“The biggest thing that happened was the persecution of the prairie dogs. The government even had a bounty on prairie dogs—they were thought to destroy crops, and ranchers were concerned that cattle would break their leg in prairie dog holes,” explains Brad Poynter, curator of conservation and science for the zoo. “By wiping out the prairie dogs they ended up wiping out the ferrets because that was their only food source.”

Wildlife experts believed the ferrets were extinct until a small group was discovered in Wyoming in 1979. All 24 of the remaining ferrets were caught for a captive breeding program in hopes of saving the species!

Out of that surviving population, only nine ferrets reproduced, which means the surviving population doesn’t have as much genetic diversity as it should. The Phoenix Zoo was one of the first zoos to join the federal program around 1988. Today there are five zoos breeding about 1,000 ferrets plus the National Ferret Center. The Phoenix Zoo has been highly successful. “We’ve produced over 500 ferrets. All are either slated for release or if genetically valuable or not over-represented, stay in the breeding program,” Poynter says.

During this time, several sites in different states now have wild populations of black-footed ferrets, including a successful one near Seligman, Arizona. But a bacterial illness called the sylvatic plague is a setback to ferrets’ successful return to the wild. The plague kills prairie dogs and ferrets and can be TRANSMITTED from prairie dogs to ferrets through fleas. Fortunately, the Seligman population has not been hit by the sylvatic plague and the ferrets’ numbers are growing naturally. If the wildlife experts can get the sylvatic plague under control, the captive breeding program might not be needed in about 10 years!

Working on the survival of 11 native species, like the Chiricahua leopard frog, Three Forks Springsnail and narrow-headed gartersnakes at the Phoenix Zoo, Poynter describes his job as challenging and really rewarding.

Reptiles Need Care, Too!

An Aruba Island rattlesnake—ready to strike.Even creepy, crawly critters need love and care, sometimes. Luckily, these reptiles have a friend in the Phoenix Herpetological Society. This organization helps native and non-native reptiles through rescue and rehabilitation and also focuses on conservation education.

“Reptiles aren’t as cute and cuddly as some mammals,” admits Katelyn Garcia, but they are important members of our ECOSYSTEM, she notes. Garcia is the director of outreach for the Phoenix Herpetological Society.

“Snakes, they eat rodents, and as humans we can get diseases from rodents,” she says. “If you were to decrease the snake population, it would lead to an increased rodent population and more people would get sick.”

Garcia says people kill rattlesnakes and non-venomous snakes because of fear. But, the best thing to do if you encounter a snake near your home is to call PHS or another organization that will relocate the slitherer. Another option is to stay clear and not bother the snake. 

“As long as you leave a snake alone, it’s not going to chase you or try to bite you,” explains Garcia. “They need their venom for their food.”

Three White Rhinos Find Haven At Wildlife World Zoo

Two of the three white rhinos at Wildlife World ZooAt the beginning of the 20th century, a half million rhinos roamed the planet. Sadly, the number of these magnificent mammals has dwindled to just 29,000 in the wild.

All five remaining rhino species—black, white, greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan—are in peril from poaching, deforestation and habitat loss due to human ENCROACHMENT.

Rhinos can be found in Africa, Indonesia and India. They are poached for their valuable horns, which certain Asian cultures wrongly believe have medicinal properties and other uses when ingested. The demand from Vietnamese and Chinese people who believe in (and can afford) the expensive, illegal horns drives the poaching.

Despite efforts to protect them, often with armed guards, three or more rhinos are poached per day in South Africa alone!

Almost a year ago, three young female white rhinos arrived at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park from South Africa. Their new, safe home is the Rhino facility, part of the new 9-acre expansion to Safari Park.

“It’s my hope that through education and awareness, we can work together in the fight for the rhino’s survival—to guarantee a viable genetic population and ensure that no more rhino species go extinct,“ says Mickey Ollson, director and founder of Wildlife World. “If the persecution of this species continues, we will likely see the rhino go extinct within our lifetime,”

The white rhino is the second largest land animal on the planet. It is listed as near-threatened, but conservation efforts have its numbers on the rise! Wildlife World also awards funds to conservation organizations. Over the past 20 years, it has awarded more than $20,500 to rhino conservation efforts.

Injured Sea Turtles Find a New Home at OdySea

Sea TurtleSea turtles are millions of years old, but nowadays these cool creatures are endangered. Loss of habitat, pollution and injuries caused by fishing and boating accidents mean that these gentle giants face a fearsome fight for their future.

OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale is home to several rescue sea turtles whose injuries make them unable to be released back into the wild. Three of the turtles—Charlie, a loggerhead sea turtle, and Greta and Valor, green sea turtles—have a condition that sounds funny, but is deadly serious. 

Bubble butt means that these turtles have air trapped under their carapace or shell. The air affects the turtles’ buoyancy and makes it hard or impossible for the turtles to dive. Charlie was struck by a boat, which also paralyzed her rear flippers. But she was cared for by a Florida rescue facility where workers attached weights to the back of her shell and taught Charlie to swim and dive again. Now this 135-pound turtle makes her home in Arizona at OdySea.

Boudreaux is a green sea turtle who is a double amputee. Two of his fins had to be removed after becoming entangled in fishing line. He was found off the coast of Texas, but this 90-pound male now calls OdySea home.

OdySea gives a home to these tough, terrific turtles who would not be able to survive in the ocean on their own. It also has a mission to make things better for marine animals in their natural environment.

In 2017, OdySea won the Reef Alliance Award for its conservation and education efforts. OdySea offers educational presentations to classrooms and the community, takes part in clean up events like the Lake Pleasant and Salt River clean ups, and promotes marine life conservation every day. The folks at OdySea are doing their part to care for the animals that call the Scottsdale aquarium home, and make things better for marine life in the wild.

Caution: Anteater Crossing

AnteatersYou might not think of anteaters when you think about Tucson, but then again, maybe you do! Not only is the giant anteater the symbol of the Reid Park Zoo, but the zoo was home to the oldest ant-eater on record and is a leader in anteater reproduction, according to Brittany Caldwell. Anteaters born at Reid Park Zoo now live at zoos all around the world. Caldwell is an education specialist at Reid Park Zoo, and she notes that zoo workers have learned much about this South American animal and share this knowledge with colleagues. The zoo also works on a project to help anteaters and humans to coexist—many anteaters get hit when crossing the road in their native land, Caldwell says. Protecting an animal benefits more than just that species. “Biodiversity is critical to having a healthy planet,” says Caldwell. When any species’ numbers are decreased or wiped out, it can have devastating consequences for a widespread area. Large animals in particular can be an umbrella species or keystone species, meaning that “by protecting them, everything else that also uses that space is protected…we take care of everybody also in that habitat,” explains Caldwell. This includes animals, insects, plants and even organisms that “we may not even know exist there,” she adds.

Butterflies To Go!

ButterflyHave you been to Butterfly Wonderland at OdySea in the Desert or Butterfly Magic at Tucson BotanicalGardens? When you visit these or other butterfly exhibits, you help to preserve an important habitat! Sustainable butterfly farms in Central and South America supply the exhibits and that helps to preserve precious rainforest habitat.  “Butterfly exhibits are supporting farmers in small communities,” explains Michael Madsen, curator of the tropical conservatory at TBG. He says that dozens of small farmers in areas like Costa Rica can make a living by harvesting butterflies instead of cutting trees and clearing land for agriculture. “(When) people care about the environment and keeping it clean, that’s a very important part of the butterfly trade,” says Madsen.  Did you ever wonder where the butterflies go when an exhibit ends? They are not released—all are non-native species. They get packed up and sent to another exhibit! But how do you put a stamp on a butterfly?  Butterflies are cold-blooded, so they slow down when chilled, Madsen explains. Temperatures are turned down to make these flutterers less active, then they’re collected and placed in glassine envelopes “so they can’t flap around, can’t hurt themselves,” says Madsen. The envelopes go into a box with ice and are overnighted to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Virginia. “They are in the box for less than 24 hours,” according to Madsen. Talk about airmail!

Did You Know!

AlligatorAlligators normally have between 74 to 80 teeth in their mouth, which can wear down or fall out through life. They can grow up to 2,000 teeth before they die.

Mature male alligators can reach lengths of up to 15 feet and weigh up to 1,000 pounds.