FROM ZOO TO YOU Where do zoo animals come from?

By Joe Knobbe

Of course, we all know about the recent births of “Ayubu” the rhinoceros, “Jasiri” the giraffe, and “Mafy” the red ruffed lemur, and that they call the Lee Richardson Zoo their birthplace. But where did their parents and all the other animals at the zoo come from?

While many animals at the zoo were born or hatched here, others came to the zoo as recommendations through Species Survival Plans (or SSPs) administered by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). As an accredited member of AZA, Lee Richardson Zoo is involved in 39 SSPs, combining efforts with other participating zoos and aquariums in enhancing the conservation of species in the wild through the sustainability of healthy zoo populations.

To achieve these goals, each SSP relies on a computerized database, essentially a genealogy or lineage of a particular species. Similar to the breed registries used with thoroughbred animals in other fields, this database is referred to as a studbook. Zoo studbooks are compiled and maintained by a Studbook Keeper, an individual within the zoo community who is particularly familiar with a species and its pedigree. With the assistance of an AZA Population Advisor, studbook data is analyzed through zoo-developed software to generate information on genetics and demographics of each SSP. While the genetics allow a view into the diversity of relationships within a population, demographics provide statistical characteristics including age, sex, and population trends.

Calling on the expertise of additional animal managers at zoos across North America, SSP Committees are formed to oversee the management of each SSP program. Programs also include advisors in a variety of fields including veterinary health, nutrition, behavior, and reproduction. Using the analyses of each studbook, committees meet regularly (in person or virtually) to identify goals and recommendations for a program, including how to best serve a population through the formation of new social groups or pairings through zoo-to-zoo transfers.

Many of these inter-zoo transfers are to form new families for the purpose of reproduction. This was the case when the zoo acquired rhinos “Jabari” and “Johari” in the spring of 2016 from Zoo Atlanta and the Cleveland Zoo. Female red ruffed lemur “Sorsha” came from the Henson Robinson Zoo in Springfield, Illinois to join males “Frank” and “Bogey” for the same reason. The two lemur brothers were born at the

Jackson Zoo in Mississippi. And giraffes “Cleo” and “Juani” arrived from the Jacksonville and the Indianapolis zoos as part of an SSP recommendation.

At other times, animals have come to the Lee Richardson Zoo for other purposes, but no less important than the formation of new families. In 2018, brother snow leopards “Bodhi” and “Omid” arrived from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as a recommendation through the Snow Leopard SSP. While providing zoo visitors the opportunity to see and learn about these magnificent animals, their transfer also helped manage available space in zoos to accommodate reproduction in other animals most important to a healthy and biologically sound population. Jaguar females “Kaya” and “Luna”, arriving in early 2021, are also an example of the Lee Richardson Zoo’s commitment to that species and a Species Survival Plan.

The next time you come to the zoo, take a moment to appreciate each and every animal and its contribution to their species, whether through reproduction and the continuation of its lineage, or as an ambassador to their species, allowing us to enjoy and learn about these wonderful creatures.

Joe Knobbe is the deputy director at Lee Richardson Zoo.