How long have you been involved in the breeding program at the Calgary Zoo?
About a year and a half now.
Did you have some experience before?
I did have some experience before. I came from the U.S. and I worked at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. They also participate in breeding programs.
What do you do at the zoo?
My title is area manager. I oversee the collection of animals. Specific animals, I mostly oversee Eurasia. I also oversee our conservation centre. Those have quite a few species in them that are part of SSP breeding programs.
Do you bring animals in to breed with animals already at the zoo, or is it more coupling of animals that are already there?
It’s both. So, basically, we’re part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, we’re accredited by that association, so that means that we meet a certain standard. Most zoos that are AZA accredited, we participate in what’s called the species survival plan, we call it SSP for short. What we do is those species that are endangered or needing conservation protection, those animals are identified and then we begin breeding programs with those species. For example, one of the ones I oversee in my section is the Asian elephants.
Is it basically a question of putting them together in the same room at the right time?
Yes, it is. Each species, depending on what you’re looking at, has a different cycle. Some animals are seasonal breeders, some are on more of a monthly type schedule. Basically, we do introductions between the males and the females and then when she comes into cycle, or comes into heat, they know what to do and they naturally breed. Then, depending on the species, they can either stay together and the female could produce offspring with the male around, or in some species, we have to separate them because the females do all the work and the males are a more solitary kind of animal.
So you just put them in the room and turn your back?
It takes some time to bring them together, although when the hormones kick in.... For example, tigers. We have Siberian tigers here at the zoo and what we do is, she will have very visual signs behaviourally. She’ll be rubbing on the mesh, she’ll be rolling on her back, she has loose stool, and we know those are signs that she’s in heat, in estrus. What we do, is we put the male beside her, with mesh in between, so that they can’t get to each other. And if they rub faces and they’re all very amiable to each other, we’ll open the slides and put them together. He knows exactly what to do. They rub faces, she presents her back end, he mounts and they go at it.
I guess sometimes animals don’t take to each other?
Yeah. In the North American river otters that we have here at the zoo, females are very male selective. So she may not like a male that we may have gotten in from another institution to breed. Sometimes what looks good on paper in genetics, doesn’t always work for the animal. We do encounter that from time to time. We certainly try it, but if she’s not interested, then we go back and we talk to.... We have a lot of SSP co-ordinators. So they co-ordinate all the genetics, they co-ordinate all the matching. We go back and say “our female didn’t like this guy, so what’s next on our genetic list.” Then we have to work with that institution, say it’s St. Louis. We say “Hey St. Louis, we’re gonna swap this male for that male.” It’s all about a lot of co-operation between institutions and that’s the real important part of zoos and their role in conservation.
What’s the most interesting animal you’ve tried to breed for the zoo?
For me, personally, I think it’s been the Whooping Cranes.
What made them so interesting?
They just, um, they’re a very tall crane and their population in the wild is very low, so we’re a part of this breeding program and we have several other facilities that participate as well. But it takes them a longer time to develop, as far as mate, then produce eggs and then raise those eggs. It’s a very long process before you get an outcome, whereas a Red Panda, you breed in January, they have babies in the spring. A lot of mammals, they tend to mature quicker than birds do, or the cranes anyway. So it takes them a while. They’re not ready for breeding until they’re between five and nine years old. In the mammal species, it can be as soon as two years old for some of them. We do artificial insemination in the Whooping Cranes. We do that to... get the genetic diversity that we need and also so that we’re making sure that eggs are being produced, so we can contribute to the wild, so the species doesn’t go extinct.
So you release some of these animals into the wild?
We certainly do.
Are you a vet, or a zoologist?
I have a biology degree.
Did you see yourself doing this job?
I did. As a child, my dad took me to the zoo all summer long and it was just something that I fell in love with and we had a lot of animals growing up and I just knew I wanted to work at a zoo. I started out as a keeper and it just turned out that I have a bigger voice and it took me to the management level. Now I get to have a voice in collection planning — what animals we should have at the zoo and what is their purpose, what is their meaning. I got away from the day-to-day care, which is also very important and very rewarding.
Do you have a favourite animal at the zoo right now?
My favourite is elephants. In the Maryland Zoo, I was the elephant operations manager.... I did oversee other stuff there. I did polar bear breeding. There’s lots of breeding going on at the zoo. It’s good.