Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Achieving Animal Harmony Is No Easy Zoo Task

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Achieving Animal Harmony Is No Easy Zoo Task

Article excerpt

The gorillas at the Jacksonville zoo wake up on the wrong side of the bed every morning. That's why you won't see two together on exhibit yet; the fur will surely fly.

The placid settings zoo visitors admire in which animals of the same species and different species peacefully coexist don't reveal the zoo's intensive behind-the-scenes social mixers that make that happen.

Before the animals go on exhibit, they've spent weeks, months, sometimes years being carefully, gradually introduced, at first within sight and sound of each other, then closer in separate "howdy" cages and pens.

They also are gradually introduced to new exhibit spaces because change is frightening for an animal and can prompt one to find a way out or injure itself or other animals.

That's why zoo staff trained with dart guns and a shotgun often stand guard at the Jacksonville zoo when animals meet for the first time or are released into new exhibits.

It's a precaution that zoos routinely undertake, said Jane Ballentine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Armed zoo staff stood by for two weeks last month when the mandrill baboons were released in their new yard.

Mandrills are aggressive, agile and acrobatic, and there was good reason to keep watch.

Michelle Mautino, a Jacksonville zoo veterinarian and director of biological programs, said a female mandrill at Disney's Animal Kingdom escaped several times from its open yard into a less secure exhibit area by crossing a moat. Mandrills and other members of the great apes family are non-swimmers, and many zoos use water barriers to help control them.

"I admit it's [guns] an extreme safety process," Mautino said. "We did it when we put the gorillas, the bonobos and the black rhinos out" in their exhibits. Black rhinos are among the most aggressive and dangerous animals at the zoo. …

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