Conversations About Climate Change Should Be Hopeful

September 20, 2021

Author: Hannah Phillips

Hannah Phillips is the Manager of Docents and Interpreters at the Saint Louis Zoo. She is passionate about meeting people "where they are at" to inspire curiosity, empathy and action for the natural world.

When I learned the Saint Louis Zoo was joining The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation network (NNOCCI), I was excited. As I knew from my previous position at another institution, NNOCCI works with zoos, aquariums and national parks by providing tools for communicating productively about climate change. I theorized such a training program could make a difference in the climate-related conversations I was having with Zoo guests, family and friends — and I was right!

As an NNOCCI member, the Zoo is part of a nationwide community of solutions-minded people, giving us access to a diverse set of resources. For example, we constructed our Climate Change Position Statement through the support of NNOCCI colleagues across the country. It also motivated us to create our own group of committed Zoo employees and volunteers to work toward climate solutions. This group met monthly and established goals including educating zoo staff and volunteers, bringing concerns of climate change to the forefront, identifying initiatives and increasing awareness.. It also motivated us to create our own group of committed Zoo employees and volunteers to work toward climate solutions. This group met monthly and established goals including educating zoo staff and volunteers, bringing concerns of climate change to the forefront, identifying initiatives and increasing awareness.

Within two years, the Saint Louis Zoo hosted its first Climate Solutions Day. The event featured experts from 13 St. Louis-area conservation organizations, who engaged in discussions with our Zoo audience around community solutions to climate change.

We have also started monthly webinars. Our first in the series, "Climate 101," took place on Sept. 9 and featured an introduction on how to have hopeful conversations about climate change. These webinars will take place on the second Thursday of each month. You can sign up for our newsletter to be notified when registration for each webinar goes live.

Also, mark your calendar for our Climate Solutions Week! On Sept. 20-23, the Zoo will host four virtual speakers presenting community climate solutions at 5:30 p.m. They'll offer suggestions on how to work with your schools, churches and neighbors to have the greatest impact. Then at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 26, all presenters will gather for live question-and-answer sessions with participants.

Our hope is to broaden our community of citizens who care about climate change. Joining others in conversation — among other actions — can have a powerful, positive effect. We look forward to having you part of our growing community! 

Hannah is a Certified Interpretive Guide and Trainer through the National Association for Interpretation and a certified trainer for the NNOCCI network. She has been working with zoos and aquariums for over 20 years.

Categories: Conservation, Our Staff

Hellbenders Returning Home

September 15, 2021

Over 800 Ozark and eastern hellbenders raised from eggs at the Saint Louis Zoo were released into their native Missouri Ozark rivers in summer 2021 by Missouri Department of Conservation, the Zoo and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Since 2008, 9,476 Saint Louis Zoo-raised endangered hellbenders (8,599 Ozark and 877 eastern) have been reintroduced to the wild in Missouri. Read more.

Author: Cristina Macklem, Hellbender Research Fellow, Saint Louis Zoo

Hellbenders at the Zoo. Photo Credit: Dave Merritt/Saint Louis Zoo
Hellbenders at the Zoo. Credit: Dave Merritt/Saint Louis Zoo

The job of returning Zoo-raised hellbenders back to their natal rivers starts with an early wake-up call. Hellbender keepers arrive at the Zoo before sunrise, when the Zoo campus is still quiet and the heavy humidity in the air hasn't yet dissipated with the sun's rays. Prior to that morning, hellbenders are thoughtfully chosen for release based on their age, health, sex, and native river. The goal: to maximize the survival of the hellbenders and the reproductive capacity of the hellbender populations in native Missouri rivers.

Keepers carefully retrieve the selected hellbenders from their enclosures and place them into large, water-filled and aerated coolers for transport. Once keepers and coolers are safely secured, they begin the journey back to the river. Together, they travel through interstates and winding back roads until arriving at the bank of the river where previous generations of hellbenders were once abundant.

Keepers carefully retrieve the selected hellbenders from their enclosures and place them into large, water-filled and aerated coolers for transport. Once keepers and coolers are safely secured, they begin the journey back to the river. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Once at the river, keepers don their wetsuits and snorkels and prepare the canoe. With hellbenders and datasheets in tow, they set off to locate suitable habitat. Hellbenders typically use large rocks for protection and for the creation of dens during the breeding season. As the crew searches for the right rocks, they can see crayfish, the preferred prey item of hellbenders, propelling themselves along the river bottom.

When the crew identifies a suitable location, they record the information and take one of the hellbenders out of the canoe. Swiftly and unceremoniously, they place the hellbender under the water with its head pointing towards a suitable rock. Upon release, the hellbender swims, by undulating its body through the water, until it comes to rest under the rock, completely hidden from view. The keepers say a final farewell and express their well wishes before repeating the process somewhere else along the cool, flowing river.

A hellbender at the Zoo. Photo credit: Saint Louis Zoo

The drive back feels lonelier, with several fewer passengers, but hopeful. The lives of the released hellbenders are uncertain now that they have returned to the wild, but their presence there helps to reduce and reverse the significant declines that have been observed in wild populations for decades. There are likely several complex drivers of the species' decline including changes to the water quality and habitats of their native rivers, but these causes are still not fully understood. Thus, the release of hellbenders from the Zoo's conservation breeding and head-starting program at the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation is a key component of the species' recovery. The release of hellbenders from the Zoo every year also frees up space at the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium to raise and release a new generation of hellbenders into the wild. The Zoo and its keepers that support the hellbenders will continue this cycle until our native Missouri rivers can once again support self-sustaining populations of hellbenders that call the river home.

An Empty Lab Filled with Active Science

August 31, 2021

Author: Eli Baskir, Manager of Behavioral Sciences
Department of Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences, Saint Louis Zoo

An empty lab at the Zoo. Last year, many students abruptly ended their Zoo internships to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing safety precautions and university shutdowns. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Over the past months, research interns again became a familiar sight in the Endangered Species Research Hospital. Their presence is a welcome change from last year, when many students abruptly ended their internships to return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing safety precautions and university shutdowns. In a normal season, we accept two or more Behavior Research interns and interns in the Endocrine and Reproductive Sciences labs. Having these individuals on site was not an option for 2020, and the Zoo had to rethink how we would host interns and perform research.

Luckily, the Reproductive and Behavioral Sciences department already used many tools to gather data when circumstances made it difficult to rely on live observers, like when we studied nocturnal animals, animal behavior in behind-the-scenes areas or animals that were likely to adjust behaviors when humans were present. We have a collection of cameras and environmental loggers for these circumstances. Thus, although live observations were paused in 2020, our previous investments in data collection technology allowed many projects to either begin or continue.

Additionally, the closure of the Zoo gave members of our research team the opportunity to perform a project that would have been otherwise impossible. Animal Welfare Scientist Dr. Ashley Edes collected data on several animals to examine how they moved around their habitats while guests were absent for long periods of time. While we cannot definitively say that animals were "missing" guests, once we are finished reviewing this data, we will know if the presence of guests affected which parts of their habitats animals used. This study will answer the question of whether our animals moved closer to visitor walkways and viewing areas when no guests were present. Insights about how animals perceive their environments and the people who visit them enable us to better understand their behavioral and psychological needs as our Zoo continues to raise the bar for animal care.

The indoor public section of polar bear Kali's habitat with visitors. The abrupt disappearance of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic was noticed by many animals. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

Although not physically at the Zoo, our interns did a host of essential projects for Zoo research by accessing Zoo computers while working remotely. In addition to watching video for the Effects of Guest Presence on Habitat Use study, they supported many projects touching a number of different areas. Some scored videos of vipers that were behind the scenes in the Herpetarium and recorded how often the snakes flicked (extended and quickly retracted) their tongues in a certain amount of time, helping the Zoo investigate whether vipers flick their tongues more often in response to a disturbed environment.

Another project that interns supported remotely was comparing the frequency and duration that Bali mynahs spend either actively in contact or in proximity with enrichment items, furthering our evidence of the usefulness of progressively challenging enrichment and how they can help retain interest in animals over more regularly introduced, static enrichments. In another assignment, interns helped collect activity budgets (how long an animal spends performing certain behaviors and their variety) from three species of primates in the Primate House before the construction of Primate Canopy Trails. This data will be one part of a larger project determining the effect of the new habitat on the primates' activities.

Happily, we were able to not only support our regular intern programs but also host a graduate student who completed and submitted their thesis on courtship behaviors of tawny frogmouths all while working from home. While the interns gave the Zoo important support in research development, we did our best to provide them with valuable experiences. During a normal internship, students would interact with our staff in-person every day and would have opportunities to attend intern-only events like behind-the-scenes tours. Though that was not possible last year, we tried to keep interns feeling connected to the department by hosting journal clubs that covered topics like cognitive enrichment and how animal wellbeing is assessed.

A Behavior Research intern works on a project while social distancing and following safety precautions at the Zoo. Credit: Saint Louis Zoo

In summer 2021, we welcomed a small number of interns back on grounds as we took tentative steps to collect live behavioral data from rhinos and monkeys. Even today, our labs are not nearly as full as they used to be, and we carefully plan how and where our interns work so that they do not crowd each other. A Plexiglas divider now splits the Behavior lab in half, and the room that used to hold up to 10 people now accommodates two in order to keep everyone appropriately spaced.

While remote work was able to get us through the past year and a half, we eagerly anticipate the day we can safely accept more interns again. We are grateful to the Zoo's dedicated Technology Services team for helping guide our interns through the steps needed to connect to the Zoo. While it is doubtful we will return to an entirely remote intern workforce, off-site students might be a good complement to in-person teams. We look forward to publishing and discussing the results of the studies that were underway during this unusual period in time, and we also hope that our efforts were able to provide a valuable experience to our 2020 and 2021 interns.

Category: Conservation