There’s been a lot of great news coming out of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo lately. Tiny, adorable news in the form of babies born to the zoo’s lions and rhinos. Baby animals are basically the one thing we can all agree to love, right? And because I am a giant animal nerd, I am not content just looking at them. I immediately wonder how these cute creatures came to be.
I’m not literally wondering about the “birds and the bees,” because from my many hours chatting with zookeepers at various exhibits, I’ve learned it’s a much more complicated – and careful – process than that. And that’s something most zoo visitors don’t know.
This is why I decided to interview the zoo’s general curator, Lyn Myers, about the effort that goes into breeding animals. Along the way, she taught me a lot of new information and cleared up a few myths, so I thought I’d break it down for you today!
Breeding is a Nationwide Coordinated Effort
The number one thing I learned was that Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s breeding program is an extremely thoughtful process.
“I think that is one of the hardest aspects for our guests to learn, because when you think about animals being endangered out in the wild, the recipe seems so simple … You breed them, have babies, put them back out in the wild,” Lyn said. “And how we would love for it to be that simple.”
The reality is anything but simple. Fresno Chaffee Zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Part of the AZA is something called the Species Survival Plan. Each species has an SSP program. As part of this program, animals from across the U.S. are put into pairings – or a “prearranged marriage,” Lyn says jokingly. The main reason for this is to avoid inbreeding. The SSP program ensures there is a good genetic representation among each “family” in each species.
When Fresno Chaffee Zoo was planning the Africa expansion, they let the AZA know that they were interested in having a lion exhibit with permission to breed.
“So we asked for a breeding group of lions … and then they looked at the United States. They looked at who had cubs at that time who would be of an age where they could come to Fresno,” Lyn said. “SSP tracks every single lion. Who’s related to who? Which family group do we not have good genetic representation on? This family has bred a lot and had cubs. This family has bred hardly at all, and we need more genetic representation from this family. And they put all those numbers together and then mesh it all and pick individuals to bring here.”
Even once the one male and two female lions arrived, it wasn’t a breeding free-for-all. The zoo was given permission to breed the male, Chisulo, with Kiki, and asked to hold off on breeding him with Kiki’s daughter, Zamaya.
“Everybody goes, ‘Oh, how come you don’t let them have babies?’ It has to be a plan,” Lyn said. “We have very limited space in captivity, very limited housing availabilities. … I can only have one male here, one dominant male, so depending upon which babies you have being born in institutions and what their sexes are male to female … and when that changes and ebbs and tides, that’s how you get permission to breed.”
Once a family of animals is deemed well-represented, the zoo will no longer have permission to breed them. For example, after a baby boom in the past few years, the giraffes at Fresno Chaffee Zoo will no longer be breeding. This is all controlled by males being neutered and/or females being on birth control.
“They have all the research on what drugs … work on which animals and how you can use them and the side effects, just like for us,” Lyn said. “Our orangutans are on the same birth control that you and I may have taken during our lives. Exact same pack.”
One pair of orangutans is actually breeding right now. In addition, Lyn believes one of the kudus, a species of African antelope, is pregnant.
Mamas Set Their Own Rules
Just like any other new moms, lioness Kiki and rhino Kayla are very protective of their offspring. Lyn says that female lions “set the rules” when it comes to their cubs because out in the wild, the young lions can be accidentally killed by their fathers. So, although father and son are developing a relationship, dad Chisulo looks to Kiki when it comes to interacting with Kijani. When their playtime gets too rough, Kijani will cry out and get his dad in trouble!
Similarly, Kayla watches carefully over her calf (who will be named in a contest like the one held for Kijani). Until this week, the pair were off-exhibit in a barn, and were only seen in an attached outdoor area called the Boma when Kayla allowed her son to go outside. The calf was slowly being introduced to his father and other animals from the rhino exhibit through a protective fence, but is now being allowed into the exhibit at zookeeper discretion.
More Than Meets the Eye, aka Animal Assumptions
My biggest takeaway from my meeting with Lyn, as well as previous conversations with zookeepers, is how much I don’t know about what goes on behind the scenes – and how much I assume based on what I see. For example, I was always a little bummed when I saw one of the tigers roaming by itself in an enclosure, somehow assuming the tiger must be lonely. What I didn’t know is that tigers are solitary animals who live alone in the wild and only come together for mating.
“They don’t even want to be together,” Lyn said. “In fact, if you can find two individuals that do like each other [enough] to live together, you have to manage them very carefully. You can’t ever set up competition. So you never can feed them together. … They have also found that if you keep tigers together – if their personalities allow it – they don’t necessarily reproduce because they start looking at each other like brothers and sisters instead of breeding.”
Lyn told me that she herself has been guilty of putting human emotions on animals. Years ago, she returned to her childhood zoo in Fresno to think about taking a job and saw a male orangutan sitting against a concrete wall with his head in his hand.
“That snapshot in time made me feel terrible. Then I got a job here because I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m going to go try to make that orangutan’s life the best that it can be.’ … Once I got a job here, I saw all the amazing work that the keepers were doing with him,” Lyn said. “The snapshot that I saw that one day was just him simply resting against the wall, but my takeaway message was, ‘Oh gosh, I feel so sorry for him.’”
Indeed, there is a lot of thought and love that goes into the building of each exhibit and the care of the animals, much of which the public doesn’t see. Education and conservation are top priority for Lyn and the rest of the zoo team.
“Do I wish zoos didn’t have to exist? Yeah! I wish everything was rosy and beautiful out in the wild and animals were not threatened and they were multiplying and they had plenty of space and every child could have an opportunity to go and experience all those species,” Lyn said. “But that’s not the world that we live in. Children can’t fly to Africa and experience lions, and we want them to be able to experience them. So we can kind of do two-fold: We can educate while we have them here and most importantly, we can build a genetic depository so if and when they disappear out in the wild, we have some genetic material to start with to repopulate those areas.”
So, next time you go to the zoo to check out the adorable new babies, keep an eye out for the zookeepers on the pathways. Take some time out to chat with them. You never know what you might learn!
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