Look at this Polar Bear Sculpture.  It is gigantic and it is completely made out of LEGO’S!!  The entire Lego Animal Sculpture exhibit is coming to the Dallas zoo this month.  So exciting.  If you are in Dallas, check it out.  If not, it is a traveling exhibit so check periodically with your city’s zoo!

Fig Newtons and Dead Squirrels

“Oh, here’s someone you can ask, honey,” a woman at the zoo said to her kid. He looked away shyly.

“She’s a volunteer here, honey, she is here to answer questions”. The boy flushed. I stopped talking about the gorillas and smiled gently at him. He still wouldn’t say a word.

“Do the chimpanzee’s have a toy squirrel that they play with and throw around?” the woman finally asked me.

“No,” I said, “at the Dallas zoo you will never find anything unnatural in the habitats, no toys, blankets or anything like that. The apes play with hay, sticks, rocks and stuff like that.”

“Well then, the one they are flinging around up there must be real,” she looked a little queasy.

“What?” I almost shrieked. “They are throwing around a squirrel? Is it alive?”

“I don’t think it is anymore,” she replied.

“What time is it?” I said as I turned in the direction of the chimpanzees, “there is a keeper talk up there at 11:30 and zoo guest probably won’t want to witness that!”

“It’s 11:30,” she said.  I started to run as fast as I could which isn’t very fast because I have weird hips and my foot hurts today.

I got to the chimps just as one of my favorite great ape keepers Will was starting his presentation in front of the glass viewing windows.  “I’m sorry to interrupt, Will, can I have a quick word with you?” I asked.  He stepped over and I whispered in his ear.  He started laughing which was a relief to me because I didn’t know if there was a concern of health issues spreading from a dead squirrel to a chimp.

“Well,” Will announced to the crowd with a grin, “this could be an interesting keeper talk as I have just been informed the chimps may be playing with a dead squirrel!”

Will then went on to point to the different chimps sharing their names and ages.  We have a baby chimp named Mashindi whom the zoo guests love to see and Will was a little frustrated that he couldn’t spot him.  Suddenly I saw him.  “There’s Mashindi, Will!” I said with a smile.

Will and I then looked at each other horrified.  Mashindi was rushing right toward the glass and the crowd with a dead squirrel dangling from his mouth who was about half the size he is.  There were gasps from the zoo guests.  As he arrived in front of the glass, his 6 year old brother Kona grabbed the squirrel out of his mouth and flung it about 10 feet straight up into the air.  It landed with a splat.

During the keeper talk there are large metal doors that open to a very heavy mesh fencing and the keepers interact with the animals through that mesh.  Will asked another keeper to go get some medical gloves and some fig newtons.  Chimps are highly intelligent, highly food motivated and they love fig newtons and rarely get them.  They also understand the concept of “trading”.  Kona is probably one of the most intelligent chimps in there.

Will put on the gloves and then showed Kona the fig newton which he immediately reached for.  Will pulled it back and said, “Trade for the toy.” Kona clapped his hands.  “No, Kona, trade for the toy.”  Kona opened his mouth so Will could see his teeth.  Kona was trying any behavior that might be rewarded.  “Trade for the toy, Kona.”  And suddenly he understood.  He went over and got the dead squirrel and then he and Will together negotiated how to squish the squirrel through the mesh.  I couldn’t watch that part.  Then the crowd cheered so I opened my eyes just in time to see Kona delight in his treat.

Gorillas in the Rain


It was pouring rain and the only people at the zoo were the animals, the animal keepers and one volunteer. Guess which one. I love the zoo in the rain because there are no humans and the gorillas are out in their habitat as long as there is no lightening or heavy wind.

A gorilla’s existence in captivity at a place like the Dallas zoo where they are treated with the immense love and respect they deserve, is relatively simple. They don’t have to worry about predators (in the wild, man is their only one, but he is a formidable one), they don’t have to forage for food or look for water, their habitat doesn’t change much and in inclement (a word I never heard until I moved to Dallas!) weather they go inside their temp controlled bedrooms, so they are always very comfortable.

When something different happens, such as a downpour, it’s very novel to them and they take full advantage. It’s party time!

I was alone in the cave, which is usually bustling with zoo guests, with only three layers of treated glass separating me from the four male gorillas who live together in a bachelor group. I was between one and five feet away from them.

All four of them were bipedal which you will see from time to time with gorillas but because of their huge upper bodies, which are tremendously densely muscular, they are usually knuckle walkers. For those of you who don’t know, bipedal means walking like we do, upright on two back legs. I got the distinct impression that because their feet were so muddy, they didn’t also want muddy knuckles. Later, I checked with a gorilla keeper and confirmed that was exactly right. They didn’t want muddy knuckles! It’s amazing what your intuition can teach you when you observe an animal for hours every week.

In the rain the gorillas were dancing, laughing (yes, gorillas laugh), sliding around in the mud, chasing each other and imitating the rain by banging on their heads with their hands, all in a bipedal position. It was astounding.

I watched the gorillas in awe for three hours frolicking in the rain. I would burst out laughing and in the next second be close to tears. I knew I was seeing something very few people will ever have the honor of seeing in their entire lives.



Zoo Sexuality

“Savuti is coming out of quarantine and will be in his habitat for the first time Wednesday and Thursday,” Tami, a primate keeper said to me. “I need a volunteer observer for Thursday,” she went on, “just to watch and report back what he is doing and if it seems to be going okay, can you do it?”

Many scientists, anthropologists and biologists believe there are 5 great apes; gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. In Texas there are four. Try to guess which one is missing in Texas and why. (Yeah, yeah, I’m messing with Texas.) There are also two lesser apes, gibbons and siamangs. They’re called great apes and lesser apes because the great apes are bigger and much more intelligent than the lesser apes. Still, I wish there was a different name for the lesser apes; like maybe “Smaller Apes” because while they may not be as intelligent as the Greats, they are very intelligent and in my humble opinion, not “less than” apes.

Humans and gorillas share 98.4% exactly the same DNA and with chimpanzees it’s right around 99%. The tiny difference in the apes DNA is significant because gorillas are extremely gentle and not at all aggressive where as chimps can and will be very aggressive; like humans. So we aren’t gorillas or chimpanzees and they aren’t human but we are very closely related.

The word “primate” refers to all monkeys and apes and if you want to know whether you are looking at a monkey or an ape just look to see if the dazzling creature has a tail. Monkeys have tails and apes do not. Some monkeys, like mandrills, have very short tails that almost look like a knob instead of a tail and even if you know the tail/no tail thing you could easily mistake a mandrill monkey for an ape because of that.

Mandrills are the planet’s largest monkeys with males weighing up to 70 pounds. People mistake them for baboons and while they are in the same family, they are much more colorful in the face and rump and are not baboons. At the Dallas zoo we have two adult female mandrills and an unbelievably energetic little baby boy named Obi who is so adorable it’s hard to fathom.

Obi with Mom, Saffron

Obi with Mom, Saffron

Obi freaking out Mommy

Obi freaking out Mommy

The only bad part about this charming scene is that Obi’s dad died of cancer about a month after he was born. The primate keepers knew he needed a male role model so he could properly learn to be a male mandrill so they reached out to zoos around the country, which is normal operating procedure for zoos nationally and internationally, to try and find a male to come live with us in Dallas, and they found Savuti.

Savuti is a very old mandrill at 22 years old; their life expectancy is around 25. When we get new animals at the zoo, they have to be quarantined for 30 days for medical testing and to get to know their new keeper/trainers.

“I’d love to observe the Mandrills for you, Tami.” I said, “I’ll be here. Will he be in the habitat with Obi and the females?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “he’s coming out of quarantine on Wednesday morning and we want him to be alone to get to know the habitat for a couple days without the added stress of being introduced to his new family. So Obi and the females will stay inside their bedrooms for a couple days while he adjusts.”

“Makes sense.” I said. “Gosh, Savuti has been inside for 30 days, he’ll probably be ecstatic to be outside.”

“Yes,” Tami said, “I’m sure he will!” She just didn’t know how ecstatic.

I arrived on Thursday morning to see Tami and another keeper in front of the mandrill habitat looking worried. As I approached, Tami called out, “You have any monkey shifting mojo? If so, we need it!”

All the primates have inside bedrooms where they sleep at night to protect them from the elements. Shifting means getting the animals to move from their bedrooms out into their habitat and back into their bedrooms again. The Dallas zoo is a positive reinforcement zoo so if the animals do what the keepers want them to do they are rewarded with treats. If the animals don’t do what the keepers want them to do, nothing happens.

“Whad’ya mean?” I responded.

“Oh my gosh,” she said, “We have tried everything and we cannot get Savuti to leave that rock! We let him out yesterday morning and he went right to that rock and hasn’t budged since. He’s so happy to be outside he hasn’t eaten or moved for 24 hours! He was out all night in the freezing temperatures!!”

Savuti on his Rock at Dusk

Savuti on his Rock at Dusk

Tami has been caring for Savuti for the 30 days he’s been in quarantine and she loves him. I know he loves her, too, because when he heard her voice, he looked up from his rock and made eye contact with her and grimaced which is a mandrill’s way of smiling and showing affection. Then when she walked away, he masturbated. When I later told Tami, she was flattered. Zoo people are passionate about animals and a curious crowd.

Beautiful Savuti

Beautiful Savuti

Grimacing at his Love, Tami

Grimacing at his Love, Tami

Dominant Males

I was staring down at our new silverback gorilla, Subira, who just joined us at the Dallas zoo from a zoo in Canada when a family walked onto the viewing platform. This cute clan consisted of two little girls probably 10 and 8 years old and a boy around 6. They were beautiful kids with shiny blond hair, clear twinkling eyes and mischievous grins. Mom was very pretty and chatty, probably late 30’s and Dad seemed very reserved.

“There are three females and a new silverback in here,” I said. “He’s only been at the Dallas zoo for 3 weeks. We got him from the Toronto zoo. This is called a troop and is how gorillas normally live in the wild with one silverback, several females called a harem, and all of the silverback’s offspring with all the females. We eventually would like to see Subira mate with Megan, our youngest female in here and have a baby!

“That’s awesome!” mom exclaimed. “How are they doing together?”

“Pretty well,” I said. “It took some adjustment since it’s now an entirely new world for all of them. He’s coming on a little stronger than he needs to in establishing his dominance and the girls are pushing back on him more than is normal but the gorilla keepers are optimistic. In the gorilla world, the silverback protects the troop and calls the shots; when to eat, when to nest, when to move on; he’s the boss and females normally go with it, in the wild it’s all they know. But these girls are not in the wild and are still getting used to him since until 3 weeks ago, this was an all girl habitat and Madge was the dominant female.”

“What made Madge the dominant one?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “Madge is the oldest and the biggest and is the mother to Shanta. Megan is relatively new here, joining us about 9 months ago. Madge and Shanta have never really accepted Megan and have treated her poorly and shunned her. It’s been kind-a gut wrenching. However, the minute you put a Silverback in with bickering females the bickering stops immediately. He just won’t allow it.”

“We need a silverback!!” the little boy shouted.


I couldn’t help myself and I burst out laughing while dad’s face flushed.

“Jake!” mom said, “We have a silverback!”

Where!?” Jake asked excitedly.

“Dad!” mom said, “Dad’s our silverback! Dad’s our silverback, Jake!”

Dad then started moving the family on it’s way like a good silverback. Mom looked back at me, rolled her eyes and under her breath said, “From the mouths of babes….”

Labs, Cheetahs and Zoo Safety

Cheetahs can be skittish. Labrador Retrievers are not. Dallas is not the only zoo that has raised them together from kittenhood and puppyhood. The Cheetahs who are raised with dogs are used for educational purposes; going to schools and events to educate people about their plight and what they can do to help in the conservation effort of this gorgeous, endangered animal. An event of this kind might be held at a venue where the Cheetah and dog need to go up a flight of stairs or enter an elevator, for example. Either of those would freak the Cheetah out, but when he sees his dog brother happily comply, he gains the confidence to do it, too.

Windspear and Amani as babies.

Amani and Windspear as babies.

“Cheetahs are shy, so the dog instills confidence in him whenever they go to new places,” zoo official Sean Greene said. “Also, the dog has an outgoing personality and while the cheetah is reserved she likes that attention, so their relationship is very natural.”

Cheetahs can go from zero to 70 miles per hour in 3 seconds. They are the fastest of the land animals. I know that but I’m wondering why they say, “land animals.” Is there a sea creature that goes faster than that? I need to google that. The only thing Cheetahs eat is meat and when they make a kill they eat almost as fast as they run because inevitably a larger cat will smell the kill, run the Cheetah off and finish the meal. So, Cheetahs have to eat as much as they possibly can as quickly as they possibly can.

I’ve noticed that when Windspear and Amani play chase, Amani is by far the fastest dog I’ve ever seen in my life. Being raised with Windspear must have busted through his genetic inclinations and inborn perceived limitations about how fast a Labrador Retriever can run.

        Playing together

Playing together

At 2:30 four days a week, the zoo does a show called “Cheetah Encounter.” It is an opportunity for zoo guests to see how fast Windspear can run and also to see him playing with Amani and interacting with his keepers. I go often to see it. One day I saw a guy wearing a zoo employee uniform, which is only slightly different than the volunteer uniform I wear. Like me, he also wears a nametag, which I didn’t bother to look at because I couldn’t care less who’s who at the zoo. I walked over and introduced myself, he said his name was Kevin and we got talking; or should I say I got talking.

   Lovin' on each other

Lovin’ on each other

“I was surprised when I saw the keepers in with the Cheetah,” I said.

Kevin didn’t say anything.

“I spoke to one keeper and asked her if she felt safe.” I said. “She said she felt completely safe because they’ve raised the Cheetah since it was a tiny kitten. She also said that Cheetah’s do not consider humans prey.”

Kevin was quiet.

“I am not an expert on these things and I’m sure the keeper is and I know this is an accredited zoo and if this were a dangerous situation the Association of Zoos and Aquariums wouldn’t allow it but I don’t think I’d personally feel completely safe. I always think of Siegfried and Roy and that Tiger.”

While I was beginning to suspect Kevin was the strong, silent type, he saw me glance at his nametag. It said. Kevin Thomas, Director of Zoo Safety. We locked eyes and both burst out laughing.

Gorillas In My Midst

In Texas, twenty percent of our enormous Barnes and Noble has been allocated to Christian Studies and Bibles and nothing opens until noon on Sunday because everyone is at church. And, you can’t buy alcohol until noon on Sundays because you should be in church, too, not out buying booze. The ironic thing is, on early Sunday afternoons every restaurant is packed to the brim with people drinking Mimosas, Grasshoppers, Bloody Mary’s or white wine.

Okay, now that I got that off my chest, there was this guy at the zoo where I volunteer and he and I were observing Gorillas together. At the Dallas zoo you can be 1 inch away from a 425 pound Gorilla. There are 3 layers of treated glass between you and him but you can stare into his eyes and he can stare into yours.

More dramatic than that, the big boys often get annoyed but mostly show-offy and will “display” which includes running up and back by the glass, pulling branches off trees and waving them, chasing each other, throwing rocks, pounding their chests, and my favorite, turning toward the crowd suddenly, rushing to the glass quickly, then aggressively pounding on it. It is so alarming that every human instinctually vocalizes in some way and jumps back. Even me, and I’m used to it.

“So,” I said to this guy, who was clearly fascinated with gorillas, “according to the Smithsonian Institute their DNA is 98.4 the same as ours.”
“I know,” he said.
I went on, “They have the opposing forefinger/thumb relationship; it’s like they have four hands. They can do anything with their feet that they can do with their hands. You can actually consider their feet superior to ours.”
“It’s amazing,” he said.
“They don’t like deep water; they are so densely muscular that they would sink and drown and they instinctively know that.” I continued.
“I didn’t know that,” he said.
“Yeah, and unlike how they are portrayed in movies, these guys are very gentle, peaceful animals. Chimpanzees are far more aggressive by nature than Gorillas.” I said. “Do you know that gorillas laugh?”
“They do?” he looked surprised.
“Yes,” I said, “I observed them in the rain for the first time the other day and they were chasing each other, lumbering in a bipedal position in what looked like avoiding getting their knuckles muddy, banging each other on the head and laughing. It was magical. I did some primatology research and they do indeed laugh. They also cry when they are sad.”

He suddenly looked sullen and glanced around cautiously.
Then, very quietly he turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m the only one in Texas who believes in evolution.”
I paused in astonishment. I was so new to Texas. I took a minute to think.
“No, sir.” I finally said, “There are two.”



B'Wenzi and Shauna

B’Wenzi and Shauna

The buddies laughing and playing.

The buddies laughing and playing.

Wow, that was exhausting.

Wow, that was exhausting.