Friday, February 15, 2013

Where wild things are

Endless Conversation


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

Someone put a large tropical bird in the monkey house at the Boise zoo. It squawks loudly from time to time, sending the family of gibbons next door leaping through the ropes and tree limbs of their dwelling. 

Zookeepers call this “enrichment,” activities that stimulate animals in ways that imitate life in the wild.

There are a great many other creatures great and small at Zoo Boise, from legless lizards and Komodo dragons, to the native squirrels and geese that roam the grounds, teasing the snow leopards and bobcats into stalking mode. Each animal has a role in nature.

When things calm down at the Monkey House, young Li Bao, a female gibbon who was born at the zoo, once again tussles with her parents, who loll about a lot more than the youngster. 

It is easy to become emotionally attached to this troupe of primates, to wonder what they are thinking and how similar their feelings must be to ours. 

Li Bao’s mother abandoned her for a period of time when she was born. Because the mother had never seen a Gibbon raised in the wild, she simply did not know what to do.  

Zoos are no longer the private menageries of the rich and famous. They serve an important role in captive breeding programs, and serve to educate young people about the many animal species that thrive around the world. Zoos also inspire youngsters to become involved in wildlife habitat conservation efforts around the world. 

Last year, the Boise zoo hosted the birth of a liter of serval kittens—long-legged, big-eared felines that hunt the grasslands of Africa. At the zoo, they live near a pride of lions. The old scarred male sends out a roar from time to time just to let everyone know who is in charge on the savanna. I stared him down through the thick glass one day last year and he walked over and took a swipe at my face. Now I know what drove my ancestors to get busy making all those spear points.

Watching the 18-foot-tall giraffes lumbering about, so specialized for grazing high branches, one has to wonder how they have escaped extinction all these years. Likewise, for the nearby copper top tamarins, hand-size arboreal primates who rank as one of the 25 most endangered species in the world. 

These tamarins have been extensively studied for their high level of cooperative care, as well as altruistic and spiteful behaviors. Only dominant couples have young.

Zoo Boise has come a long way in recent years, providing richer environments for its animals, thanks to funding from a long list of Homo sapien donors who see value in preserving portions of the earth for other species. 

We can thank Ketchum resident Greg Carr for funding parts of the African exhibits, which draw attention to his environmental conservation efforts at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.

We can also thank big-cat scientist Maurice Hornocker, who lives on Broadford Road in Bellevue, for his years of field research among the Siberian tigers. 

Hornocker’s work to preserve these magnificent cats from destruction is celebrated at Zoo Boise’s Siberian cat exhibit. The exhibit inspires others to provide donations for his continued work.

All the animals at Zoo Boise have stories. Thankfully, they also all have human friends who have cultivated their altruistic behavior enough to help make room in the world for all of us. Maybe this is what humans were put here to do.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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