FROM ZOO TO YOU Changing times at Lee Richardson Zoo

By Kristi Newland

If you’ve been to the zoo recently, you may have noticed some changes. The weather is going up and down, the leaves are changing, and many of the animals are putting on heavier coats for the upcoming winter. On the north end of the zoo, you may have seen the trumpeter swan. Trumpeter swans are North America’s heaviest flying bird. The average adult male weighs over twenty-six pounds and needs a “runway” of open water that’s over 100 yards long to take off.

At one time, swan feathers adorned hats, and swan skins were used to make powder puffs. Their long flight feathers were turned into writing quills. By 1933 there were less than 70 trumpeter swans known to be alive in the wild. But thanks to conservation actions, this once-endangered species is recovering from the earlier crisis. In fact, according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), their conservation status is now listed as Least Concern, which means their numbers have increased and the species is now at a lower risk of extinction.

In the wild, males (cobs) and females (pens) form pair bonds when they’re three or four years old. It’s generally believed swans mate for life. In fact, in some cultures, swans symbolize monogamy and loyalty. But there are times when this isn’t the case. If the pair is unsuccessful in breeding, they may re-pair with other swans, or if one passes, the survivor may find a new mate. Catherine, the female that lived a long life at Lee Richardson Zoo until her death late last month at 22 years of age, met her mate Heathcliff at the zoo in 2002. Zoo staff are working with the Trumpeter Swan Species Survival Plan to identify a new companion for him.

Although trumpeter numbers have grown, they still face threats in the wild. Even though it’s illegal to hunt trumpeter swans, lead shot is still fatal to them in another way. If they come upon lead shot in the wild (used for trap shooting or other purposes), they may eat it as grit to help digest hard grains. It only takes three ingested pellets to kill a swan. Habitat loss is also still an issue for them. Trumpeter swans have become an ambassador for wetland conservation.

In other areas of the zoo, you may have noticed changes in some of the buffer spaces between some of the zoo residents and our guests. COVID-19 affects more than just humans. Felids, primates, and mustelids (i.e. ferrets, otters, etc..) are some of the animals that can be negatively impacted by the virus.

For that reason, it has also affected zoo operations as one of our charges is to provide quality care for the residents of the zoo. Wearing masks near those at-risk animals has become an established habit for staff in order to protect the animals. While some animals living in other zoos have contracted the virus, there has been no evidence of them passing it on to their human caretakers or guests. 

In the Marie Osterbuhr Aviary building, a COVID-related solid barrier went up earlier this year. Without extra space in the building, this was the best way to implement protection for the resident primates with guests going through the building. The buffer space at the siamang habitat also increased on one side (the other side was already big enough).

Similar changes were made at a number of cat habitats, and staff are working to make those changes more visually appealing, as well as addressing other identified areas where such changes are needed in order to continue to meet best practices established for the care and welfare of the animals in these times. We are also in the process of obtaining an animal-specific version of the coronavirus vaccine for the cats at the zoo.

Other changes at the zoo include the addition of a number of new trees to the landscape. This follows the removal of some trees earlier this year that had been identified as hazards. While it was hard to see the larger trees go, safety is always at the top of our list.

As a 94-year-old facility, there are changes every year. All occur with the goal of providing quality care and welfare for the animals of the zoo, a safe work environment for the staff, and a top-quality engaging experience for our guests.

Kristi Newland is the director at Lee Richardson Zoo.