Zoos use science, genetics to preserve wildlife

Staff writer - The Greenville NewsMarch 2, 2014 

Zookeeper Christine Dear feeds Walter, an 8-year-old Masai giraffe, rye crisp crackers. Walter came to Greenville from the San Diego Zoo as part of a breeding loan.

MYKAL MCELDOWNEY — Staff photographer - The Greenville News

— For weeks, zookeepers suspected that Autumn, the 8-year-old Masai giraffe, was pregnant again.

The world had watched in awe on live video as Kiko, Autumn’s first calf, dropped from her womb just before midnight on Oct. 22, 2012.

He was a tangle of limbs, as fragile as china.

Kiko is now 12 feet tall and weighs a healthy 900 pounds. With another sibling on the way, zoo officials are back in the baby giraffe business.

Breeding such an animal in captivity requires months of well-laid plans. Giraffes are easier than other species since they’re natural herd animals, said Jeff Bullock, the director of the Greenville Zoo.

But when the giraffes are part of a captive breeding program, it’s not so simple.

The pairing of Autumn and her mate, Walter, began long before they came to Greenville, with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The AZA keeps track of all captive giraffes in North America using a studbook, which Bullock describes as an Ancestry.com for zoo animals to maintain genetic variety.

There are roughly 100 Masai giraffes in North American zoos and an estimated 40,000 in the sub-Sahara Desert. Conservation groups, however, believe the wild population has dropped significantly in recent years.

With the wild population shrinking, zoos have begun to break down their walls, acting as matchmakers to save those species in decline.

“The ownership of these animals is something that’s gone away,” said Keith Gilchrist, general curator for the Greenville Zoo. “There’s much more cooperation.”

Old ways

It was a different story 40 years ago.

Animals were bred with no thought to the gene pool, and it was common to buy and sell them among zoos.

The introduction of Species Survival Plans helped change that. SSPs use science and data to manage captive species populations, deciding who gets to mate with whom and where there’s adequate space to hold the new family. About 80 percent of Greenville’s animals are involved in these programs.

Depending on the year, “The SSP may say, ‘We don’t want you to breed because there’s nowhere for the babies to go,’” Bullock said.

The husbandry that goes into each species is why many zoo officials were stunned when Copenhagen Zoo killed 2-year-old Marius last month. The reticulated giraffe was shot to death by a zookeeper and then his carcass was dissected in front of a crowd. The remains were fed to the lions.

Copenhagen Zoo officials said they were following a European zoo policy that allows euthanasia as a last resort to keep its breeding programs in check. Marius was killed to prevent inbreeding.

“That story caught everybody off guard. It was shocking,” Bullock said.

He’s never run into a situation where he had to euthanize a healthy animal. It’s more common in Europe, where the average zoo kills about five large mammals a year, The Associated Press reported.

Gilchrist believes the killing could have been avoided if contraceptives had been used.

“They prefer that their animals go through natural life cycles, which is why they let Marius’ mother be bred (so) it’s slightly hypocritical not to allow Marius the same opportunity,” he said.

Contraceptives are used for several of the animals at the Greenville Zoo. Chelsea the orangutan takes birth control pills the zoo gets from Walgreens, while the spider monkeys have been implanted with a time-release version.

Euthanasia is discussed only if an animal is sick or badly injured, and it happens rarely, Bullock said. Sundari, a white Bengal tiger, was diagnosed with cancer and euthanized in 2000. The last polar bear at Riverbanks Zoo was euthanized for kidney failure in 2001.

Matchmakers

With Autumn expecting, zookeepers have turned their attention to the red panda exhibit.

Greenville’s first panda birth happened on June 6, 2006, when surprise triplet cubs — two females and a male — were born. They represented a quarter of all red panda cubs born in the U.S. that year.

The red panda may be all that’s left of the different panda varieties that existed once, long ago, according to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, which researched red pandas.

Greenville hasn’t had a birth since the triplets, though zookeepers have noticed the new male, Firecracker, showing interest in a younger female.

“It’s very, very rare that you actually see red pandas mating — they’re quite secretive animals — but come summer, we’ll know,” Gilchrist said.

The zoo may have to wait another year before knowing if its two Amur leopards can be bred. Just 25 to 30 of the big cats are left in the wild with another roughly 250 in captivity.

In the past, breeding programs have rescued animals such as the California condor from near extinction, and, in some cases, reintroduced them into the wild.

Bullock was part of the effort to restore Attwater’s prairie chickens to their native marshes while working at a zoo in Texas. The wild population had dropped to 42 birds, down from a million a century ago. Zoos across the state started to breed the grouse-like birds, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release nearly 100 birds a year into the wild.

“Zoos used to be a Noah’s Ark,” Bullock said. “That was kind of the mentality, that we were just protecting these species.”

It’s an uphill battle for most animals. There’s not enough space, or there are too few births.

More than a third of the world’s amphibians are believed to face extinction, a quarter of all mammals, a sixth of all birds. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature records such figures.

In the world of zoos, smaller animals may fare better. Plans are in the works to create an Amphibian Ark at the Greenville Zoo, which would focus on breeding one species of frog. They’re small, don’t take up much space but can have a huge impact.

“If every accredited zoo were to take on one species, that’s 200 species of frogs that could be helped,” Bullock said.

Still, those in the zoo business know many species probably can’t be saved, Bullock said. They have turned to conservation programs, supporting groups such as the Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance. And they focus on maintaining the captive animals they have through smart breeding.

“We can use these animals as ambassadors,” he said.

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