How the Omaha zoo gets its animals

Giraffe AnnaBelle at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri

By Chris Peters / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Click the map to learn more about the exhibits in the African Grasslands project, the zoo’s largest construction endeavor to date.

When the zoo wants to buy an animal, like its three recently acquired giraffes, it uses a sort of animal matchmaker.
The arranged marriage — or perhaps it’s more of an arranged fling — begins with a phone call. Someone from the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium talks with an intermediary, a scientific love doctor who matches animals with the right breeding partners.
That person keeps a list with genetic traits and bios of every animal of that species living in American zoos.
“On the genetics side, it’s a big dating service,” said Dr. Don Moore, senior scientist with the Smithsonian Institution and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits zoos like Omaha’s. “On the husbandry and medical side, it’s kind of a side service to the dating service to say, ‘Once these animals start dating, are they going to date in a healthy way?’?”
If it’s a match, then the two zoos can make a deal.
It’s at that point that the conversation can branch off in all sorts of directions. Because, as it turns out, there’s not just one way to acquire a zoo animal.
Plenty of animals are bought and sold, and some come from the wild. But more often, zoos share animals through loans, donations or other methods. Troublemakers, illegal or unwanted pets and aimlessly wandering creatures can find themselves on exhibit.
Every animal at the zoo has its own origin story.

Giraffes feed on elm tree branches in the new herd room at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Three giraffes recently joined the herd: Layla from the Nashville Zoo, AnnaBelle from the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, and Zola, from the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD


Birthday: June 5, 2010
Born at: Gladys Porter Zoo, Brownsville, Texas
Purchased from: Nashville Zoo, Nashville, Tennessee
Parents: Inzimatu (deceased) and Priscilla (9)
Birthday: May 16, 2014
Born at: Great Plains Zoo,
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Parents: Olivia Dee (8) and Chioke (9)
Birthday: May 19, 2014
Born at: Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, Missouri
Parents: Gidget (22) and Peperuka (14)

Buy/sell with another zoo

It started, like most transactions do, with a phone call to the love doctor.
When the Omaha zoo set out to buy its three newest giraffes, a curator at the zoo called Lanny Brown at the Nashville Zoo. Brown is in charge of the AZA’s nationwide breeding plan for giraffes. Each major species has someone like Brown, and that person is usually someone at another zoo who is an expert on one specific animal.
That person, known as the program leader or coordinator of the Species Survival Plan, is the go-to for any zoo that’s looking to buy or sell.
The AZA established the Species Survival Plan 20 years ago to work toward conservation. There are now plans in place across the country for 590 species.
When a zoo has extra animals or wants to get rid of some, it tells someone like Brown. Then Brown looks at the profiles of every animal that zoo owns and finds a mate at a zoo that is looking to buy. Brown’s job is to try to match giraffes that are genetically very different from one another with an emphasis on avoiding inbreeding.
Once the program leader finds a few prospective mates, the zoo can take that list and start negotiating with the owners of those animals.
Usually, the negotiation doesn’t involve money. Zoos are more likely to loan or donate animals. And when there is a fee, usually for marquee animals, that fee often goes to conservation efforts, not the other zoo’s pockets.
Giraffes are one of the exceptions.
They’re “usually a pretty good money-maker,” said Dan Cassidy, the Omaha zoo’s general curator.
Mike Crocker, director of the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, said he’s had offers as high as $50,000 from private collectors.
Most zoos decline offers from private parks in order to keep giraffes in accredited zoos. So zoos like Omaha get the good-guy discount.
Dickerson Park just sold a 1-year-old female giraffe, AnnaBelle, to Omaha’s zoo for between $15,000 and $20,000. The zoo got a similar deal on Zola, a 1-year-old from the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Layla, a 5-year-old from the Nashville Zoo.
Male giraffes, and males of most species, cost much less. One male can breed with almost a dozen females, Cassidy said, so zoos need fewer males. Those normally sell for less than half the cost of their female counterparts.
When Cassidy started at the zoo in the 1970s, zoos used to cold-call other zoos, looking to buy or sell animals. There was no middle man.
Zoos back then often turned to the wild for new animals. Now, they do all they can to keep business between zoos.

The 1-year-old AnnaBelle arrived at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in October.

Buy from the wild

Reaching into the wild for animals is a sort of last resort for zoos.
Oftentimes, it means zoos in general are struggling to breed the species. Omaha’s zoo relies on wild populations for sharks and rays, Cassidy said — they just don’t propagate in zoos very well.
Other times, it’s more of a rescue effort.
Over time, human encroachment and habitat loss have led to human-animal conflict. In cases where locals have to choose between relocating the animal or euthanizing it, the AZA prefers the former. Moore said those animals can serve as ambassadors for their species.
“For a lot of people, the only place to be engaged and inspired in wildlife conservation is to be in a zoo and to look a living animal in the eye, to smell that living animal, to hear that living animal,” Moore said. “It’s totally different than seeing it on video.”

Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium's new elephant arrives in 2001. KILEY CRUSE/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is doing just that with elephants.
In 2012, zoo CEO and executive director Dennis Pate partnered with two other zoos, the Dallas Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, to find an elephant herd in the wild.
Domestically, zoos are struggling to breed elephants. There aren’t many breeding-age elephants available for transfer from other zoos, so in order to fill the gigantic new African Grasslands elephant herd room, Pate had to turn elsewhere.
“We don’t want to take animals out of the wild — we want to build sustainable collections here that aren’t dependent on the wild,” Pate said. “That’s the goal. But we’re not there yet with elephants.”
In February 2014, Pate traveled to Swaziland for the first time and, on first sight, he and the other zoos agreed to take ownership of 18 elephants that the Big Game Parks Trust planned to otherwise kill.
The elephants were destroying the habitat that black rhinos relied on in the Mkhaya Game Reserve and Hlane National Park. As part of the transaction, the three zoos agreed to contribute $450,000 to the Big Game Parks Trust for black rhino conservation.
When shipping endangered animals overseas, the red tape is extensive. The Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora treaty of 1973 restrict what zoos can do, and they have to file for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The three zoos did that last November. A decision is expected in the next month.
The case of the zoo’s new elephants is extraordinarily rare, Pate said. There hasn’t been an elephant import of this size in decades.
Almost 95 percent of all birds and mammals in zoos are bred in captivity, Moore said. Pulling from the wild is the exception, not the rule.

Hoofstock keeper Katie Kallsen hangs alfalfa for giraffe to eat in the new herd room at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD


The zoo has secured almost all of the animals for its African Grasslands but still needs to ship most of them. And that doesn’t come cheap.
» Shipping a giraffe can cost $4,000 to $8,000.
» Shipping insurance for a giraffe costs about $1,200, including 30 days worth of insurance for resulting damage.
» Animals are often shipped in specialized containers.
» Some zoos, like the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, own specialized giraffe transport trailers with an extending and collapsing roof for Interstate travel.
» Keepers often go along for the ride to make sure the animal is safe.
» Zoos along the route serve as stop-off points in case of emergency.
» In high-traffic or emergency situations, police escorts may be used.
» The zoo’s new elephants will fly in crates aboard a Boeing 747 from Swaziland.
» Smaller animals fly commercial in dog kennel-sized crates: “I think people would be surprised if they knew what was under them sometimes,” said Dan Cassidy, general curator at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
» If the weather is too hot, too cold or otherwise unsafe, they’ll wait, especially if they’re flying.
» Animals often wait in quarantine after arriving at a new zoo to make sure they’re free of disease.

Loan from another zoo

Plenty of animals are freebies, with a catch.
When zoos have spare animals that they don’t have space for — say, a gorilla — they go through the species survival plan program leader and put the animal on a list. For some species, usually less-threatened ones, zoos can access that list of available animals online.

The process usually follows the same steps it would if the zoo were buying an animal, except instead of exchanging cash and outright selling the animal, the zoos agree to a loan.
That loan can go a couple of different ways.
Sometimes, there’s cash exchanged, but usually the receiving zoo gets to keep the animal for the remainder of its life without paying a fee. The sending zoo can recall the animal whenever it wants, but it has to meet agreed-upon conditions to do so, and Cassidy said he can’t recall a time where that has happened in Omaha.
In exchange, the sending zoo gets that animal’s first offspring. Sometimes the zoo specifies that it wants the first female.
That’s called a breeding loan. It’s the most frequent type of loan Omaha’s zoo participates in.
“Usually, when something goes here on loan, it usually never comes back. It’ll stay here the rest of its life,” Cassidy said. “But once in a while, there are cases where it’s a short-term loan and you know that going into it.”
Like the time the zoo borrowed a Komodo dragon.
In 1999, the zoo brought a 12-year-old Komodo in from the Minneapolis Zoo for the summer to boost attendance. The zoo has also rented koalas in the past.
Short-term loans like these usually come with a price tag and a breeding restriction. They’re called exhibit loans. In the case of the Komodo, the zoo loaned the Minneapolis Zoo a white tiger in exchange for the dragon for the summer.
On a smaller scale, the zoo sometimes borrows animals from government entities, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Salt Creek tiger beetles and black-footed ferrets are both currently on semi-permanent loan from the government on the condition that the zoo breed the animals.

Giraffes feed on elm tree branches in the new herd room at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD


Fortunately for the zoo’s bottom line, most of its animal transactions are absolutely free.
Other zoos are usually happy to give their animals a good home. And they’re happy with the unspoken expectation that some species come without a premium.
Like bongo. The horned creature is one of the largest species of antelope in Africa. It will have a home in the new African Grasslands in the shadow of its chief predators, cheetahs and lions, and it didn’t cost the zoo a fee to buy the males for its herd. When the zoo acquired a male bongo from the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2012, it only cost shipping and handling.
The zoo has also received donations in the form of meerkats from Scottsbluff, African black-footed cats from Kansas City, tarantulas from Toronto, coua (a Madagascan bird) from San Diego and impala from Disney’s wildlife reserves.
“Donation is the word I always prefer when things are coming this way,” Cassidy said. “Sale is the word I prefer when they’re going out.”
But the zoo doesn’t always love getting handouts.
For years, Cassidy said, neighbors had a tendency to drop off pets, assuming the zoo wanted their orphans. Cassidy said the zoo has seen plenty of fish, parrots and rabbits over the years, but the zoo tries to discourage people from discarding their unwanted pets.
They don’t mind free bongo, but they’re full up on bunnies.

Dr. Lee Simmons and workers unloading a crate holding one of the new tigers brought into the zoo for the white tiger breeding program. THE WORLD-HERALD

Newborn giraffe AnnaBelle nuzzles up with her mother, Gidget, at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri.

Other methods

Some animal origin stories are stranger than others.
Some of the zoo’s venomous snakes, for example, came from an out-of-control homeowner, whose snakes were confiscated by the Nebraska Humane Society a couple of years ago. The zoo held the snakes on loan until the court ruled on the case. Some are still at the zoo today.
“We kind of feel like it’s a service to the City of Omaha,” Cassidy said. “The Humane Society didn’t have the facilities or the expertise to deal with them, let alone the anti-venom we had here.”
The zoo accepts other kinds of problem animals. When a mountain lion roamed into town about 20 years ago, the zoo took possession on loan rather than allowing the animal to be euthanized, Cassidy said.
The State of Nebraska called the zoo recently about another captured cougar, asking if there was room for it. Cassidy declined the offer.
“You know,” he recalls telling them, “we’ve still got the last guy that you sent us.”
Animals sometimes come to the zoo on their own. If an opossum makes its home on zoo grounds, it can become the zoo’s property.
And some animals are given sanctuary at the zoo for rehabilitation purposes.
Several collared peccaries — small pig-like creatures from the Sonoran Desert — are on display inside the Desert Dome. They arrived at the zoo from rehabbers in Arizona.
The bald eagles and white pelicans at the zoo’s Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari are also there on rehab after injuring their wings in the wild, some on power lines. Many required amputation and can’t fly at all.
Rather than leaving the birds to die in the wild, the zoo gave them a home on a pond.

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