St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
June 1, 2008

In the sixth of a monthly series this year, Saint Louis Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner explores a part of the globe where the Zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.

Wild Assessment

The Saint Louis Zoo has a wild ass problem. If you worked at the Zoo and you heard this, you'd immediately think that something was amiss with our Somali Wild Ass herd. Most of you, however, were probably thinking something else. That's exactly the problem.

Fewer than 1,000 Somali wild asses - and maybe as few as 700 - remain in their native range states of Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. They live in rocky, arid land, including Danakil, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth. Among mammals, the males have one of the largest territories in the world.

Not only are they rare in the wild, where they're hunted for food and are thought by many local tribesmen to have medicinal value, but North American zoos don't have a strong safety net for them either. Three zoos have just 27 of the animals, with seven of those in St. Louis.

Just a few weeks ago, our first wild ass foal was born, and I began to spend more time up at Red Rocks. The little filly prances and dances, kicks, bucks and nuzzles by turn. She has a gorgeous taupe-colored coat, and she balances (sometimes precariously) on long light-colored legs marked with vivid black stripes. Few animals are more adorable than a baby wild ass. (And by the way, we have two more pregnant mares.)

Not Donkeys

But here's the problem. If you stand around their yard for any length of time, you'll hear visitors making a variety of rather tasteless jokes about the animals' name. Parents rush their children along so that they don't have time to read the educational graphic. Mothers tell their children that our asses are donkeys - which they are not. School groups break into gales of laughter when the class clown shouts their name. In other words, visitors are missing our conservation message that we are working hard to save these rare, beautiful and magnificent animals.

We've supported ground and aerial field surveys in Eritrea and Ethiopia and have funded training for conservation biologists in those countries, too. Tim Thier, our zoological manager, keeps a breeding history of all the Somali wild asses in North America. He is doing his best to help manage the population in the most genetically viable way. The Zoo's research department has been studying wild ass hormone levels in an effort to understand how they relate to reproduction.

Even more importantly, we are working with other scientists at Washington University to study their behavior. Because they are hard to find, much less observe, in the wild, much of our studies center on documenting the foal's growth rate in comparison to the mother. It's hoped that this will allow our field biologists to better estimate the age of young animals.

Yet people still seem distracted by the A-word. Last year a high school freshman did her Science Fair project at the Zoo. She studied how visitors responded to our Grevy's zebra versus how they responded to our Somali wild ass. About 41 percent of those who visited the wild ass laughed at the name, while none did with the zebra. About 28 percent of our visitors showed interest by staying at the wild ass exhibit and by using their name; 86 percent of the zebra visitors showed interest and said their name. This might seem silly, but that doesn't mean it isn't awkward.

So, what's the Zoo to do? Work like crazy to convince people that it's OK to say "ass" in front of children, or push for a more elegant name. International biologists changed the name of the Siberian tiger to the Amur tiger because the Amur River valley is the last place on earth where they survive. Why not the Somali wild ass as well?

Speaking Ethiopian

Patricia Moehlman, a fellow of the Zoo's WildCare Institute and a scholar who is, arguably, the world's authority on wild asses, has suggested "Dibokali" - the name the native Afar people use for wild ass in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, please visit our wild asses. March right up to them and say to those around you, "Hey, there's a Somali wild ass!" If you get a funny look, smile and say something like: "The foal's name is Wane (pronounced WAH-nay), which means 'spirit' in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia." If they think you're an expert, they won't question your use of the word "ass."

Trust me. I've tried it.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com