At the Calgary Zoo, when artificially breeding whooping cranes "the staff first have to restrain a male, stroke his legs and purr to him."
What happens next involves lots of massaging and a glass funnel says Colleen Baird, the general curator at the zoo. The female is then injected with the sperm, while everyone crosses their fingers hoping it will get to the right spot.
“If all of those magical things happen, she will lay an egg,” says Baird. The zoo’s various conservation programs are complex and important but Baird feels the public’s disconnect from them could jeopardize the way the programs earn their funding as the public does not know where their ticket money goes.
The zoo has to manage a delicate dance between meeting the needs of the animals and maximizing the conservation efforts, says Baird.
She gives an example of a pair of whooping cranes named Hope and Chinook who are the “superstars of the whooping crane captive breeding program.”
After years of successfully raising chicks, Hope and Chinook started smashing their eggs without explanation.
Zoo conservationists found the behavior only occurred in the days leading up to the eggs being brought into the program as the birds did not want them to be taken.
“We thought, ‘okay, we need to give them more space and time before we start looking at their eggs or tinkering with their eggs or doing anything that suggests we are paying attention to them breeding,’” Baird says.
The team learned that if they waited longer for the pair to have time with their egg before swapping it out for a dummy the two cranes would go back to being really good breeders.
Colleen Baird, general curator and senior manager for the animal care department says one of the reasons she got into conservation was to be a voice for the wilderness in the technological age. Photo by Rogan Bowen-Harper
The habitat of the greater sage-grouse’s breeding program is another great example of the thought and time that goes into conservation, says Baird.
“[Sage-grouse] are scratchers, they're dirt bathers, they're peckers. They destroy plants, they destroy a lot of things that are in their habitat. That's why they have such a big range because then they can go and do that for kilometers.”
This led the sage-grouse breeding team to sort out a rotation between enclosures that would allow the birds to graze and use up a habitat as another would replenish. This mimics the wild and would make the birds feel more at home.
Stories of ingenuity like this are common in the conservation world yet there are few ways to hear about them as a member of the general public says Baird.
She believes this disconnect results in misconceptions and confusion about the programs as people do not fully understand the extent of the programs.
To try and combat this, the zoo incorporates as much information about the programs as they can into the attractions by putting up graphics and doing demonstrations. This has varying success though as guests can easily miss it.
Adult whooping cranes, like the one seen here at the Calgary Zoo, can grow up to 1.5 metres tall and weigh up to 17 pounds. Photo by Rogan Bowen-Harper
Natalie Colbran, a first-time visitor to Calgary and its zoo, found herself worried about the size of some of the enclosures.
“We were sort of walking around being like, ‘Wow that's really small.’ But we weren't sure if maybe they have more land to transport them to.”
This is the case for many of the animals in the zoo despite it not always being clearly advertised.
The message the zoo’s programs try to convey is not always easy to understand but it does get through to some visitors.
Adriana Straton, a zoo membership owner, has spent enough time visiting to understand the programs that have been put in place and how they’ve been beneficial to the animals.
“When you read the signs and stuff [about how] the animals are put by their natural prey to smell them and feel stimulated like they're in the wild, I feel like they do a good job.”
While Baird feels they are doing a lot at the zoo to further the public’s conservation knowledge, she also recognizes the main motive for doing so is to generate funding.
“You're getting a wonderful visit at the zoo, you're seeing programs that we have, you're talking to our visitor experience people. But also, you just paid, so that sage-grouse has a meal today or you've paid for the soft release pen that we have out in the field,” she says.
The conservation program’s financial needs are always greater than the revenue generated by the zoo — this is where government funding and private donors come in.
Baird says the mix of funding sources allows for adaptability in the programs, so if one funding source is lower, the others can make up for it.
The sage-grouse would not have a conservation program without patrons to the zoo, government backing and private donations, says Don McKinnon, a researcher with the zoo’s sage-grouse conservation program, in an email to the Calgary Journal.
Habitat loss and other factors will continue to chip away at species numbers leaving these programs as the main line of defense.
The Calgary Zoo’s various conservation teams are now working on a big transition to move the main conservation centre to a new location, farther from the encroaching communities.
- By Rogan Bowen-Harper