From Leftovers to Lunch: How an Energy Company Can Help Feed the Animals

August 13, 2018

By Amanda Bregenzer, Keeper, Animal Nutrition 

Here at the Saint Louis Zoo, you might be surprised to find out that we’re participating in our own version of the “farm-to-table” movement that is sweeping the nation. While our staff at the Orthwein Animal Nutrition Center work hard to make sure that all of the animals eat well, preparing nutritionally rich diets catered to each species, some of our animals have a special “home-grown” supplement to their diet:  trimmed tree limbs, otherwise known as browse.

These green boughs are an important addition to the diet of the Saint Louis Zoo’s herbivores and omnivores. Bark from the browse helps to keep an animal’s teeth clean (giraffes and gorillas in particular love eating bark) and the leaves contain fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients. Moreover, browse is great for our animals because it gives them a chance to eat foods they would encounter in the wild, a testament to the dedication of the Zoo’s animal care staff to providing world class care.

The Saint Louis Zoo began its browse program with Ameren Missouri, Saint Louis’ local energy company, in 2017 after Debra Schmidt, Ph.D., William R. Orthwein, Jr. Family Animal Nutritionist at the Zoo, learned of similar program at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL in which the local electric company donated trimmed tree limbs for the animals. At the same time, zookeepers Becky Heisler and Nate Aalund were collecting fresh browse on their own accord for the antelope and elephants. A proposal was then made to Ameren Missouri to form a similar program with the Saint Louis Zoo, which Ameren Missouri accepted.

In maintaining its power lines around the Saint Louis area, Ameren Missouri trims tree limbs that could cause damage in a storm or bad wind.   Usually, the downed limbs are chopped and recycled as mulch.  Now, however, rather than go through the chipper, the browse is delivered directly to the Zoo. Five species of tree are used for browse: mulberry, hackberry, elm, ash and willow.  These trees are the most readily encountered species in the area that are safe and healthy for our animals.

Browse deliveries occur on Tuesday and Thursday mornings with an average of two to three loads of browse being delivered each day.  On Tuesdays, browse is sent straight to the animal areas to be fed out fresh.  On Thursdays, processing deliveries runs a bit different.  Browse committee members, animal keeper interns, and volunteers and staff from all areas of the Zoo gather together to pack the first load of browse into large totes that will be stored in the Orthwein Animal Nutrition Center freezer   This frozen browse is used during the fall and winter.  The leaves become slightly rubbery, but the animals still love the browse just the same.  The second load is delivered fresh to the animals, while the third load goes directly to the elephants as they consume much more browse than the other species. Using this format, the Zoo is able to provide fresh, healthy browse to many of our animals all year long.

The program, now in its second year, is a huge success. Last year, browse was delivered to the apes, primates, elephants, and antelopes. This year, it has grown to include the Zoo’s tortoises, bears, and various animals in the Children’s Zoo.  Not only is browse healthy and nutritious, the animals absolutely love it (especially when we get willow!), so with the help of our community and Zoo staff, we hope to keep the browse program “growing” in the future.

See our animals enjoying some browse  here.

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A Heart of Stone

August 07, 2018

By Tommy Brown Saint Louis Zoo Gift Shop Manager 

If you have ever walked through one of the gift shops at the Saint Louis Zoo, you may have seen soapstone carvings in the shapes of cheetahs, lions, giraffes or other animals native to the African Serengeti. As a part of my Saint Louis Zoo-sponsored Crafter Journey through Kenya, I stopped in the village of Tabaka, where some of the best soapstone craftsmen in all of Africa live and work.

Along the way, I visited the mines from which the Tabakans cut the stone and carry the rock out by hand. The mining is very difficult work. Between the strain of the labor and the pressing heat, the villagers rest between each load they carry up the mountainside. Once the soapstone has been hewn from the mine, it is hauled to the nearby village, where the master artists set to the work of bringing the rock to life. The men of the village are the miners and the carvers, but there is also a very important place for the women of the village in this crafting process.

The women of the village put the “soft touch” on the rough carvings. They sand and smooth the little sculptures, then polish them to a high gloss. This is a time consuming and delicate process; the women need to fine tune the work that the men of the village have done. Without the finishing touch of the women in the village, the soapstone carvings would not be nearly as beautiful. As they work, the women sit together, socializing and telling stories. The children of the village attend a school and, after school is out, play in the dirt roads while the moms sit nearby crafting and keeping an eye on the children at play.

The children of the village were amazing. We laughed and sang songs, and they tried earnestly to speak English with me as many of them were learning this in school.  These children will be the future crafters of the village, and instilling in them why their crafts are so important will keep these arts alive for future generations to enjoy.

As part of the Zoo’s efforts to help promote education throughout the world, a book drive was organized to help supply a children’s library in Mombasa, Kenya. These books will help the children of crafters and other children in the area learn English. Additionally, I had the good fortune to help feed more than 300 children that showed up that day to the library. Some of these children had walked close to 10 miles to get a plate of food and a book. Some of them did not even have shoes. Yet they arrived with smiles and joy, making me feel welcome. Our contributions to these people, however big or small they may be, make a huge impact, especially on the children.

Life in the village is very simple, but the villagers’ teamwork is the best I have ever seen. The villagers know that each person depends on everyone else in the village to make their livelihood. No one can do it alone. It literally “takes a village” in Kenya to have great success. The villagers rely entirely on craft sales to the EU and the USA to make their income. Most of the buyers come from zoos, aquariums, theme parks and museums. Because zoos are a big part of their income, there is an incentive for the villagers to help with conservation efforts like reporting illegal poaching, taking care of their local environment and reducing their carbon footprints. By purchasing their soapstone statuettes, you help the people in these Kenyan crafter villages and give back to conservation efforts in their part of the world. So, thank you all for helping to make a difference in people’s lives when you buy stone art from the Saint Louis Zoo.

Click picture below to enlarge image. 

Pregnancy Monitoring of Bingwa the Cheetah

July 24, 2018

By Corinne Kozlowski, Ph.D.

On November 26, 2017, Bingwa, a 4-year-old female cheetah, gave birth to eight healthy cubs at the Saint Louis Zoo. While the birth may have come as a surprise to the St. Louis community, scientists in the Saint Louis Zoo Endocrinolgy Lab had been closely following Bingwa’s hormone levels for several months to ensure that she had a healthy pregnancy.

While pregnancy tests for humans are easily purchased at any drug store, commercial pregnancy tests are not available for Zoo animals. Additionally, females often hide behavioral indicators of pregnancy and do not start showing until close to their due date, which can make it very difficult for keepers to determine if an animal is pregnant. However, early pregnancy detection is important as it allows animal care staff to provide the mom-to-be with everything she needs for a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery.

Scientists in the Endocrinology Lab have developed methods for detecting pregnancies for many species here at the Zoo. Our tests usually involve measuring concentrations of the hormone progesterone, which increases substantially when a female is pregnant. For humans, progesterone is usually measured by collecting a blood sample. However, collecting blood samples from animals at the Zoo can be difficult. Fortunately, concentrations of progesterone can also be accurately measured in samples collected non-invasively, including saliva, urine and feces. Of these, feces samples are the easiest to obtain and best for our animals, as collections do not disturb the animals. Thus, much of the work in the Endocrinology Lab involves measuring hormones in fecal samples.

Endocrinology Lab scientists had been regularly following Bingwa’s hormone concentrations through fecal sampling since her arrival in 2015. We first measured her cortisol levels to assess how well she had settled into to her new home in St. Louis and continued to monitor her estrogen levels to determine that she was having healthy reproductive cycles. In August 2017, we discovered that Bingwa’s progesterone concentrations had increased. This timing matched an introduction period with male cheetah Jason, indicating that she had mated and ovulated. Unlike humans, who ovulate (release an egg) monthly regardless of mating, cheetahs only ovulate after mating (known as induced ovulation). After ovulation, progesterone concentrations remain elevated for about two months and then decline if a mating was infertile. However, if a mating was fertile and a female is pregnant, her progesterone concentrations remain elevated until delivery, which occurs around 100 days after mating.

Excitement grew as we continued to monitor Bingwa’s progesterone concentrations throughout the fall. In October, we determined that her progesterone concentrations were still elevated. This was more than two months past her mating date, indicating that she was indeed pregnant. We immediately informed the animal care and veterinary staff who then began preparing for the birth and delivery. A little over a month later, Bingwa gave birth to her eight cubs.

We continue to follow Bingwa’s hormone levels, as well as those for many of the Zoo’s large felids, bears, elephants, primates and ungulates. By monitoring reproductive cycles, pregnancies, and measurements of well-being, we provide information that allows the Zoo to deliver the highest levels of care to our animals. We enjoy all of the testing performed in the lab, but diagnosing pregnancies is certainly one of the most exciting aspects of our work.

Now, Bingwa’s eight cubs – affectionately referred to as the Bingwa Bunch – can be seen out at their habitat in River’s Edge. The five females and three males are playful, healthy young cheetahs. This birth is a testament to the Saint Louis Zoo’s 44-year commitment to saving cheetahs in the wild. Read more about our cheetahs here.

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