Thursday, August 23, 2007

Article: Lessons from the Austin Zoo

Prairie Dog at the Austin Zoo (looks a little fat)

I often drive the stretch of Hwy. 290 leading from Dripping Springs to Austin. Along that road is a sign that always catches my attention, an arrow pointing down Circle Drive with the words “Austin Zoo.” I love animals and I love zoos but somehow I never had the time to stop. This weekend, I decided to finally go and to bring my son and his family along.

Celeste, who is eight, was excited about going to the zoo. She’s a cat person and really wanted to see the big cats, especially the tigers. The rest of us wanted to see the pair of adult capybaras the zoo was reputed to have.

Zoos these days all have missions. Of course one mission is to educate the public about the beauty and diversity of life on Earth. In addition to that mission, the Austin Zoo is a rescue zoo. Over 90 percent of their 300 animals have been rescued. A sign at the entrance admonishes visitors not to keep exotic animals as pets. Well that put a stop to me telling them I have a pet capybara.

Still, I understand their point. The zoo gets around 200 requests per year to take unwanted animals. People don’t always consider the long term commitment they are entering into when they get a pet. Even with dogs and cats, few consider whether the animal will fit into their lives in the five, ten or even fifteen years that the animal will live. Local animal shelters are full of abandoned pets who have outlived their owners’ interest.

Responsible pet ownership also involves selecting a pet that you have the time and facilities to care for. Most people can accommodate a dog or cat but not many could care for a bear, a tiger or an anaconda. Surprisingly, according to the Austin Zoo web site, there are more tigers in Texas than anywhere else in the world. Some are in zoos, some in “roadside attractions,” some are pets and others are at game ranches waiting to be “hunted.”

Those are the obviously bad choices for pets. There are less obvious ones. I might as well go through my own pets as examples.

Firstly, I have horses. Horses aren’t like most pets, they retain value throughout most of their lives. But horses live a very long time and toward the end they typically can’t be ridden. I lost a horse this summer who was twenty-nine years old. She’d had only very light use the last five years of her life, occasionally taking small children for short rides. I have the land to retire a horse. People who are spending $300 per month for board are much less likely to keep a horse past its useful life. Those horses end up going to slaughter.

I also have reptiles. For my son Philip’s first birthday, I got him a young leopard tortoise. It’s a gift that lasts a lifetime. Leopolda is now at least twenty-eight years old and weighs fifty pounds. I have structured my yard around a large tortoise. I have a good sturdy fence she can’t see through, a nice pond for water, no poisonous plants, and several fruit trees. In 1989 I gave Philip a Florida kingsnake. I still have that snake eighteen years later.

Before I bought my baby capybara, I considered whether I have the facilities for her. I have the nicely fenced yard that I built for Leopolda, including a pond. I want Caplin to be an indoor / outdoor pet but if that doesn’t work out and if she can’t just stay in the yard, I have a couple of pastures with wire mesh fence that I can configure for capybara use.

So we went to the Austin Zoo to take a look at their capybaras and compare their behaviors to Caplin’s. We wondered if she’d still be as friendly when she gets big and will she still make the cute noises. We ran into the general curator, Jim Carroccio, out at the tiger enclosure and asked about the capybaras. Jim told us that the zoo’s pair had died of old age a couple of years previously. We asked about capybara personality and Jim characterized them as “cow-like.” I think Caplin is going to prove him wrong. She’s already got a ton of personality

Photo: My baby capybara, the instigation for the zoo trip.
Photo: Leopolda, a leopard tortoise I've had for 27 years.
Photo: Many of the zoos animals are rescued, like this blind leopard.
Photo: Celeste taking a turn at Duck, Duck, Goose.
Photo: Austin zoo scenic.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Article: Taking the long way

The AmerScot Inn, a B&B where I stayed in Stow, MA

I have a saying most people might not agree with but which suits me fine: if it’s worth going, it’s worth going the long way. Application of this motto provides glimpses into local culture and scenes that are completely missed when traveling direct routes or suffering confinement to major highways. It also makes me late.

This past weekend, I had the chance to put my travel paradigm into action. I found myself staying at a nice little bed and breakfast in the small town of Stow about an hour outside Boston. I travel quite a bit for work but seldom end up someplace that’s not completely urban. Stow is decidedly non-urban.

The AmerScot Inn ( provided a nice jumping-off point for my little adventure. Friday morning I had an excellent breakfast prepared by Doreen Gibson, the innkeeper, and followed by a short meeting with a potential customer. Then my day was free. All I had to do was get from Stow, Massachusetts to Bangor, Maine, a trip that takes about four hours on the major highways.

My natural proclivity in the area of indirection was given a boost when the customer advised me of a beautiful route along the New Hampshire side of the Maine / New Hampshire border. He warned that it was considerably longer. But I had all afternoon! So what if I got there at 6:00 instead of 4:00? Still plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a long chat with my nephew in Bangor when I arrived.

Of course there’s no point taking a scenic route unless you stop to admire the scenes. Which I did. There was the adorable little town of Sandwich about half-way up the state. I stopped to look in a local art gallery and found a wonderful watercolor of marine invertebrates that I am going to regret not buying for years.

A little farther on, a sign pointed me to covered bridge #54. I had never seen a covered bridge so naturally I had to go. Number 54 turned out to be the Durgin Bridge, originally constructed in 1844 but apparently the current incarnation dates from 1869. Still, you don’t find bridges like that in Texas.

Near the New Hampshire / Canada / Maine intersect lies the town of Conway. That place must be a major tourist destination because I hit stop-and-go traffic well outside of town. When I parked my car to take a photo of some flowers with tree-covered mountains for a backdrop, a little tourist train put a stop to the go part of stop-and-go as it crossed the road between the tightly packed cars. I eyed the train enviously. If only I had time to ride it. Yet by this time I realized my arrival in Bangor was going to be a little later than six o’clock.

On the Maine side of the border I encountered a giant statue of Paul Bunyan in Rumford. The largest Paul Bunyan statue is actually in Bangor and I’d already seen that but this one nice too. Still no Babe the Blue Ox, which seems like a shame.

I didn’t make it into Bangor until after 10:00 pm, much later than I expected. Still, I saw a lot of things I never would have otherwise. Tired as I was, I did not regret my route. However, if I ever get a chance to do that particular drive again, I think I’ll take two days. And I’ll buy that watercolor in Sandwich.

Photo: Durgin bridge in New Hampshire.

Photo: The town of Conway, NH with traffic and a little tourist train.
Photo: Somewhere in western Maine.
Photo: Giant Paul Bunyan statue in Rumford, ME
Photo: Taken from Cliff Island off the Maine coast near Portland.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Article: Bats rule the world

A flying fox bat takes off from its tree roost in Mysore, India

Last weekend I visited the most amazing location. I went to the place with the largest concentration of mammals anywhere in the world! I didn’t have to journey to the African Rift Valley or the rain forests of the Amazon. I didn’t even have to leave Texas. In fact, I only traveled about fifty miles from my home in Buda.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the largest concentration of mammals is composed of members of one of the most diverse mammalian groups, the bats. Bats, in the order Chiroptera, are only outdone in terms of numbers of species by the rodents. There are over 900 species of bats comprising about one fifth of all mammalian species. The bats at the world’s largest colony at Bracken Cave just north of San Antonio are Mexican free-tailed bats, the same species as the colony under the Congress Avenue bridge in downtown Austin.

Bats can be divided into two groups, the small microbats and the large macrobats. The microbats have a nearly world-wide distribution and include all of the 47 species of bats found in the US. These bats use echolocation (or sonar) and feed mainly on insects. The macrobats, also known as flying foxes, live in a swath from Australia, through Southeast Asia and Africa, including Madagascar and many oceanic islands. Flying foxes do not use echolocation and most species feed on fruit. As their names suggest, microbats are generally considerably smaller than megabats. The largest of the flying foxes have a wingspan of up to six feet. The smallest of the microbats, the bumblebee bat of Thailand, weighs less than a penny and is considered to be the world’s smallest mammal.

When I was a little girl living in Panama, we used to sleep inside netting, mostly to escape the mosquitoes but also to prevent vampire bats from biting our toes at night. The threat from vampire bats is not really the bite, which doesn’t hurt at all since the bats provide a local anesthetic, or the loss of blood since each bat drinks only about two tablespoons. The real issue is rabies, which is more common in vampire bats than in other bat species, as can be expected by their feeding habits. The United States is well outside the range of vampire bats and about one in five hundred bats here carries rabies. In the US, an average of one person per year contracts rabies from a bat.

Aside from the prospect of rabies, bats have a large impact on human life. The colony at Bracken Cave consumes an estimated 200 tons of flying insects each night. Many of those insects are crop pests. Several plant species such as mango, clove, guava and avocado depend on bats for pollination. The large flying foxes are also hunted for food throughout much of their range.

Watching the bats emerge from Bracken Cave is an awe-inspiring experience. For a couple of hours before sunset, the bats swirl around just inside the mouth of the cave. It takes several minutes to notice that the dark rocks on the outer lip of the cave are not dark at all, what you are really seeing is thousands of densely packed bats. Just before the sun goes down a few brave bats spiral out of the sinkhole containing the cave opening and fly off in lonely solitude. As the sun disappears, a thin trickle of bats winds its way across the darkening sky. Well before full-dark that trickle has become a torrent with a seemingly endless flow of bats streaming forth. The wind from their wings causes the nearby trees to sway as if a gentle breeze were blowing.

Central Texas is also fortunate to be the home of Bat Conservation International (BCI) which was founded in Austin in 1982. BCI is dedicated to bat conservation world-wide and owns nearly 700 acres surrounding and including Bracken Cave. Tours such as the one I attended are offered periodically throughout the summer. Visit their website for information on how to join a tour.

Bat Conservation International:
Flying Fox Conservation Fund:

Organization for Bat Conservation:

Photo: Opening of Bracken Cave with bats milling about before sunset.
Photo: The bats at Bracken Cave were coming out pretty thickly at this point although they came out in even greater densities after it was too dark to photograph them.
Photo: These microbats were roosting on a tree trunk in Venezuela.

Photo: Flying foxes heading out for a night of fruit feasting, near Labuanbajo, Flores, Indonesia. These large bats fly like birds rather than like small insectivorous bats like the Mexican free-tailed bats at Bracken Cave.Photo: Flying foxes roosting in trees in Mysore, India
Photo: From a distance the bats look like large hanging fruit.