Father saves daughter from zoo bear attack

Warning to little girls everywhere–giant teddy bears may very well try to eat you.

Warning to parents everywhere–watch your kids when around dangerous wild animals.

A Dutch family was visiting a private zoo in Luenebach, Germany, when their three-year-old daughter became enchanted by an Asian black bear. While her parents’ backs were turned she climbed the fence, which was only a meter (three feet) tall, and fell inside the bear’s enclosure. The bear then struck the kid. Daddy leaped in, got his own share of bear battering, and managed to save his daughter. Both were taken to the hospital but their injuries are not life-threatening.

This isn’t the first time the bear has acted like, well, a bear. Three years ago he attacked and injured a zookeeper.

Police are now investigating why it was so easy for a small child to get into the bear’s enclosure and why the parents didn’t notice her doing it.

As a parent I can testify to how quickly a small child can slip out of sight and get into mischief, but even when my son was three he knew not to climb fences and approach strange animals. Why? Because I told him. Of course that’s no guarantee, but he hasn’t done it in the first five years of his life, greatly increasing the chances that he will see the next five. Parents, please, teach your kids about animal safety. Cute does not mean safe. Just ask the Chinese guy who suffered a panda attack.

Image courtesy of Guérin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons.

Montenegro loses its only hippo

The only hippopotamus in Montenegro escaped from the zoo on Wednesday. So if you took your trip to Podgorica specifically to see the two-ton animal, named Nikica, pack up and go home. Maybe you can catch a train to Greece instead. Whatever you choose to do, just know that the damned hippo isn’t there any more. She broke free from her cage and swam away after seasonal floods reached the zoo.

Davor Mujovic, the zoo’s manager, told Reuters, “She remains at large, but one of the guards is keeping an eye on her and is feeding her daily.” Nikica found a dry spot about a mile from the zoo, which is sufficient for now. Mujovic and the zoo guards are going to wait until the water pulls back more before trying to lure the hippo back to the zoo.

The hippo is already charming the locals, according to the zoo’s owner, Nikola Pejovic. “People like her,” Pejovic said, “villagers are bringing her fresh hay.”

[Photo by marfis75 via Flickr]

Dispatch from somewhere in Indonesia: A secret school for orangutans

I’m struggling to make friends here. Miriam, a 9-month-old orangutan orphan who’s learning how to climb a tree, almost scales past her trainer when I approach. For good measure, she starts to cry. Another orangutan signals displeasure by emulating the sound of a Harley barreling toward me. In fact, the only one who tolerates me is 11-year-old Leuser, and not because the 42 air-rifle pellets lodged in his body have mellowed him. He’s also blind.

At any zoo, these surly apes would bomb the aw-isn’t-he-cute exam, but here at the world’s most successful school for rescued orangutans, they’re taught to get back in touch with their wild side. Even playtime is serious business. Passing, say, the test of recognizing a friend (another orangutan) versus a foe (a human logger) could spell life or death for these critically endangered icons of the old world jungle.

Everything happens here with one goal in mind: graduation day, when the shaggy students are set loose into the harsh Sumatran rain forest. But for the students to have a shot at survival, handlers must teach them to avoid humans at all costs, a tough task considering they need to be fed by humans.

And teaching them about the dangers of Homo sapiens means no lines of gawky tourists dangling bananas and posing for pictures. That’s why this center at the far north of Sumatra – one of the main islands of Indonesia – is closed to the public and barely known to outsiders. Even if you made it to the nearby village – where the specialty dish is fruit-bat soup and the humid air is clouded with mosquitoes – this part of Sumatra is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Palm trees line the one-lane road to this village, and in the distance, various plantations – chocolate, banana, papaya – dot the endless green of the hills.

The locals don’t seem to understand why the special training and care given at this school. For instance, keepers will offer the apes a hollowed-out block of wood with honey inside to play with, rather than just chicken and rice, the customary diet of pet orangutans. Turns out, it’s a useful skill for wild orangutans to learn how to scrape honey out of a tree hole.

Another trick to keep the students sharp is to tie up rice sacks with the food inside (they like any sweet fruit). The dim ones will rip the bag open, but the smart ones? They will untie the bag.

But you could say those are elective classes. Most of the orangutans come here either completely spoiled by their former owners – almost all military officers who keep them as illegal pets – or with injuries from clashes with farmers and illegal loggers. The injured receive medical attention, and former pets are quarantined for a few weeks and then transferred into a sprawling system of socialization cages. For the young ones, it may be the first time they’ve seen another of their kind.

During the socialization stage, the residents make friends – and sometimes enemies. Two 30-pound toddlers, Kevin and Irwin, are rolling around some blue oil drums when they decide to fight (it looks more like tickling). Just as quickly, they become bored and begin swinging from ropes attached to the ceiling of their metal cage. The playground bully, Prince, who’s bigger by at least 25 pounds, glares at them, ready to steal their milk when the handlers bring the twice-daily bowls.

Though wild orangutans are usually solitary animals, a landmark 2003 Duke University study revealed that they have culture, the only primates besides chimps with this human characteristic. Even more surprising, they’ve been observed using all sorts of tools to dig for termites, scrounge for honey, and get at the seeds inside the razor-sharp neesia fruit – knowledge passed from ape to ape. After all, it’s unlikely a whole troupe of orangutans simultaneously realized leaves could double as gloves or umbrellas.

If all goes well, the students will soon leave this garden paradise – with its freshwater springs, wood gazebos, and hanging orchids – for the tiger-infested rain forest of Jambi Province. It’ll be a 36-hour drive down the spine of Sumatra to a place even more hidden away.

There, they must pass their final test. Handlers will bring them into the jungle each day and teach them everything else they need to survive: what fruits to eat and where to find them, how to eat ants and build nests, and perhaps how to use a tool or two. The wilder ones may graduate in a couple weeks. Tamer ones could take months or years. And the tamest ones? Well, like human students, they don’t want to get out of bed until noon and will expect food to be handed to them on a plate (and don’t even ask them to build a nest anywhere off the ground).

Regardless of their survival know-how, these orangutans face poor odds. Only 6,500 remain in Sumatra and 50,000 in Borneo, down by half from two decades ago.

Indeed it takes stellar teaching to assure an orangutan takes to the wild. More than 90 orangutans have been released since 2003, when the reintroduction began. And it’s not goodbye after graduation. Field observation of the animals suggests the survival rate may be as high as 80 percent.

As it stands, wild orangutans need all the help they can get. At current rates of growth, illegal logging, mining, and oil palm plantations, could destroy 98 percent of the orangutan’s habitat by 2022, a UN report warned last year. Many conservationists predict the extinction of the orangutan within a decade or two.

Japan needs a panda

A beloved treasure of the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo died yesterday. Ling Ling, the panda who became an ambassador of goodwill of sorts, and a world traveler looking for a mate had heart failure. In human years, Ling Ling was 70. In panda years, 22.

Now the zoo is without a panda, and Ling Ling was without offspring. He was flown to Mexico three times to give him a chance to procreate. He also spent spent some time in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C according to this Smithsonian magazine article, I found. Most importantly, he was part of the peace agreement with China in 1972. People in Tokyo are broken up over the news and are leaving flowers and notes at Ling Ling’s cage.

The Ueno Zoo is hoping to get pandas on loan at least. Unfortunatly, it’s not like there are many pandas to go around–only 1,600 of them live outside of zoos. Their native environment is in China in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. [see AP article]

Devra G. Kleiman, the author of the Smithsonian article, spent a long time studying pandas, both in the wild and in zoos, and provides a detailed account of their habits and habitat, including mating habits which may explain why Ling Ling never got lucky in love with pandas. In people love, he hit pay dirt.

Bargain Day at the Bronx Zoo

If you’re thinking about a trip to the Bronx Zoo as part of a New York City vacation, go on a Wednesday. This is the day when the admission cost is what you choose to donate. The place was packed, but not terribly so considering we went on the 4th of July.

We started our trip there at Union Square on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue. The 5 subway went within two blocks of the zoo’s entrance. I think the subway is a special thing to do in itself. Once the train crosses to the The Bronx, the train travels above ground so it’s a chance to get a top of the buildings view and glimpses of neighborhoods.

The Bronx Zoo is lush, expansive place with loads of trees that are as much a focus as the animals. On a hot day, this would be perfect. The trees kept us from getting wet when it started to rain. I’d also head to the zoo in the fall. I bet it’s gorgeous when the leaves turn colors.

Of all the exhibits, the World of Birds was my favorite. The exhibits are on two levels. The first floor gives you the bottom of the forest version of the birds’ habitat and the second floor is a top of the trees view.

One of my son’s favorite activities was the carousel. Instead of horses, the zoo’s version has gigantiic insects. My son chose a grasshopper.

Another thing I liked about The Bronx Zoo is it’s focus on environmentalism. There are several exhibits set up by the Wildlife Conservation Society that show the impact of humans on the environment and what people can do to help alter the course of destruction. Considering the zoo is in a part of the United States that has had to wrestle with this reality on a daily basis.

The most wonderful aspect of the zoo, however, was the people. Sure you can see exotic animals, but the variety of people here is perhaps unrivaled. There seemed to be families from all parts of the world enjoying the day along with us. It was terrific to think we could gather here on the 4th of July without spending a fortune to do it.