Creating Positive Change

by Paul Swen

The entire staff of the Caldwell Zoo has dedicated their professional careers to providing the best possible environments for the animals under their care. To do that, serious zoological research is continually supported by scientists, medical professionals and animal husbandry experts around the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, flamingoes are super shy by nature. They do not have the “weapons” of raptors like hawks and eagles. There are no talons or sharp, powerful armament for defense. In contrast, their specially adapted beaks are made to siphon water from shallow pools. Their wide, webbed feet help them walk on muddy ground. To protect themselves they naturally try to stay far away from anything or anyone that is perceived as a threat. All the animals at the Caldwell Zoo need individual care to keep them fit and healthy. It takes a team of experts to deliver what they need. 

Zoos are wonderful places for inspiring curiosity and promoting education by learning through fun. The wonders of the natural world are celebrated here. Wildlife is inherently fascinating. The diversity and differences that fly, trot, swim and slither through the animal kingdom are astounding and captivating. We can learn so much from the animals with whom we share our planet. Respect and appreciation for all creatures great and small are strengthened by connecting people with animals. To do this, we must understand how different species thrive. The entire staff of the Caldwell Zoo has dedicated their professional careers to providing the best possible environments for the animals under their care. To do that, serious zoological research is continually supported by scientists, medical professionals and animal husbandry experts around the world.

It’s well known that many animal species have become threatened or endangered in the wild for a variety of reasons including loss of habitat, hunting, and trapping for the pet trade. Zoos like the Caldwell Zoo, here in Tyler, are committed to helping protect threatened and endangered species through a variety of conservation programs. In fact, zoos are the leading contributors to conservation efforts worldwide. The Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which the Caldwell Zoo is an accredited member, is a consortium that unites organizations for best practices in animal husbandry and conservation of wildlife. Of course, it takes tremendous resources and knowledge to understand how to be most effective in helping different animal species. So, accredited zoos around the country work together to provide best practices in veterinary expertise, nutrition, habitat design, animal care and breeding programs. By meticulously caring for animals, educating the general public about the different species and directly contributing to conservation, we can help protect animals in need all around the globe. 

The team at the Caldwell Zoo is constantly and steadfastly learning about how to benefit the animal kingdom. It’s essential that the animals that live at the zoo have everything they need for a full and healthy life. Special habitats are designed to suit each species. They get safety and security from the elements and peace and quiet when wanted. There’s also a tremendous range in food preferences to fit the variety of herbivores, predators, fish lovers and omnivores. Yes, every diet is carefully planned with the best nutrition possible. We want lions to have the protein necessary for radiant manes. Macaws require crunchy nuts to keep their beaks in good order. Horned lizards demand the right amount of sunlight and tasty larva to grow and prosper. Flamingoes need special nutrients to provide for their bright, colorful plumage. 

The point is to give every member of the animal family what they need to thrive. This is especially important regarding the many threatened and endangered species that live at the Caldwell Zoo. For many animals, their native homelands and habitats have become frighteningly unsafe. So, conservation is more important than ever. The zoos of AZA are dedicated to helping preserve wildlife. That’s precisely the point of the program called SAFE (Save Animals From Extinction). Participating zoos work together to carefully breed species that have decimated populations in the wild. 

The experts within AZA meticulously keep account of the genetic history of each animal at every accredited zoo.

Backed by diligent science, recommendations are made for breeding pairs. This attention to genetic diversity greatly increases the chance for healthy offspring. That means that zoos can help keep some species alive and safe even if they become extinct in the wild. By doing this, if conditions improve, strong and able-bodied animals could be reintroduced into the wild of their native homelands. This methodology has proven to be effective. For instance, the California condor, North America’s largest bird, had become critically endangered with only 22 individuals left in the wild. Through great effort of the US Fish and Wildlife Department and collaboration of zoos around the country, the condors were moved to facilities and a diligent breeding program was undertaken. After years of dedicated work, condors were reintroduced to protected areas that were once a part of the homeland. The latest count shows that there are now over five hundred of these magnificent birds. 

This type of careful breeding can really make a difference. An example of this important work is done right here at the Caldwell Zoo. Wild populations of cheetah have fallen drastically over the past few decades throughout their native habitats in the Mideast and most of Africa. Seeing the potential trouble for the species, AZA zoos stepped up to start breeding programs for these graceful and beautiful felines. It’s not easy or simple. Cheetah are naturally rather shy. They are also notoriously picky in choosing a mate. So, it’s taken diligent study to find out what makes them tick. They need to be completely comfortable and healthy to breed. Making sure an animal is fit requires the ability to perform at least some medical procedures. But how does one convince a wild predator to agree to take medicine or agree to a medical check-up? You have to teach an old cat new tricks.

It may come as no surprise that animal zookeepers are rather fond of animals. They have a deep respect for wildlife in general. That’s why they chose the careers they have. The work is hard and often dirty and taxing. Habitats must be cleaned. Meals must be gathered and distributed. And they must monitor the health of every animal to make sure all is well. A cat could have an injured paw. A bird could have a damaged beak. A tortoise could have something caught in its shell. How do you check to see if a cheetah is pregnant? And, just like us, any animal can catch an illness and need treatment. Essentially, zoo animals need all the same attention as you or your favorite pet. But you can’t just put a three-hundred-pound tiger in a pet carrier and walk into the vet’s office. To work with animals, zookeepers follow precise protocols based on best practices shared by the AZA. At times the work can be rather nerve-wracking because a tiger, cheetah, flamingo or tortoise doesn’t know that its human keeper and vets are just trying to help. So, wouldn’t it be great if the animals simply volunteered to participate? Sound impossible? It’s not.

Making sure the health and wellbeing of animals are absolute priorities at the Caldwell Zoo. This becomes even more pronounced when working with sensitive or dangerous species or when trying to help endangered species to breed. So, the team is continually collaborating with other experts about best practices for different situations. Recently, the Caldwell Zoo joined forces with Natural Encounters Incorporated (NEI) to add new techniques to standard protocols. NEI has worked with zoos all around the country and the world on advanced methods of interaction and engagement between keepers and animals. 

Steve Marshall, President and CEO, of the Caldwell Zoo explains, “We want to give all the animals here the very best. When some of our partners in AZA shared experiences from the training techniques of NEI, we were instantly intrigued. The great part about this program is that it benefits everyone involved. The animals are so relaxed. The keepers are comfortable. The vet staff have a more positive experience. We can just do our jobs even better.”

The keepers are currently applying these new training and engagement techniques all across the zoo- from alligators to elephants. Considering that there are over thirty different threatened or endangered species currently at the zoo, helping animals and interacting with them is more important than ever.

Building trust between the animals and their keepers is the main point of the training. Essentially, the keepers invite the animals to participate in actions through diligent positive reinforcement to achieve desired behaviors. Through hours and hours of patient repetition, the keepers skillfully teach animals specific actions that are truly beneficial. For instance, through consistent work, keepers can teach a cheetah to voluntarily walk to a specific area of their habitat and stop to get a reward. This would allow the zoo team to take x-rays if needed in the future. The animals learn that there is no threat. Nothing is forced. Everything is voluntary. The new methodologies have proven to deliver outstanding and even surprising results. Yes, we can simply ask a tiger to come over and get her shots. A bobcat will gladly let her nails be trimmed. Flamingoes will follow their keepers to their night house. An expecting cheetah will stroll over so we can check on her pregnancy. 

“It’s been wonderful to be a part of this,” continues Mr. Marshall. “Our mission is to make a positive difference in the natural world. This new program allows us to do more. We are creating a powerful connection between people and animals. This includes guests of the zoo as well. You should come see a bobcat come to the nail salon or witness the devotion of a colobus monkey mother as she cares for her newborn baby. You’ll be amazed.”