I’m published!

I’m published! I read my school’s paper the other day, and got incredibly riled up when I read this article, urging people to vote ‘no’ that day on our local zoo millage. So, I wrote my response and sent it in as soon as possible. I’m really proud with how it came out, so I thought I’d share it here.

Columnist misrepresented the role of zoos in society

I was deeply saddened and shocked to read Mitch Goldsmith’s rail against our local public zoo in Tuesday’s paper (“Vote ‘no’ on zoo millage extension” SN 11/2).

As a zoology student — with the goal of becoming a zookeeper in just such a zoo — I hate to think this is the image the general public holds about these facilities.

Goldsmith’s first point is about the “aged prison” of Potter Park Zoo. He also says we shouldn’t give them any money. Zoos typically barely squeak by during election season, as most people hate to increase their taxes to pay for the zoo.

Zoos also usually receive little patronage or charge small fees — sometimes none, depending on the season.

With this meager income, how are they expected to meet the food requirements of so many animals (large carnivores usually eat 10 to 15 pounds of meat a day) and also be able to pay for vet services and basic maintenance with the small staff they are able to hire on that income?
To sum it up, for zoos, more money means less problems.

Continuing on that same train of thought, when animals are brought in for the winter, they are usually kept in small cages. That could also be fixed with more money. Larger, more comfortable enclosures could be used, perhaps even for indoor viewing.

The enrichment that Goldsmith so derogatorily describes as a mere “chew toy” for distraction is much more. These enrichments help provide animals with stimulation and challenges near what they would encounter in the wild, and are constantly observed and changed to further challenge the animal.

I don’t know what Goldsmith did when he went to the zoo as a child, but I learned to respect and understand the creatures. Yes, I would prefer a world where we didn’t have zoos full of animals, but for some animals, this is the only option.

In their native habitats, these animals would barely stand a chance. For example, when white rhino populations swung down to less than 200 in the entire world, captive breeding programs helped increase the number of animals to more than 15,000.

By being exposed to animals such as this, it is hoped that people can create a real bond to them, and thus care about what happens to their world. Or, at the very least, spark interest.

It is one thing to know what an elephant looks like and care about what happens to them, but an abstract animal such as a saola or dhole is harder for the average person to imagine and care about.

Zoos are just as important as libraries and schools in educating the general public on the world in which we live, as well as helping to preserve what we can of our planet’s wonderful biodiversity.

Katie Leatherman, zoology senior

Originally Published: 11/02/10 7:52pm

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Going into other spots

“Said Leopard to Baviaan (and it was a very hot day), ‘Where has all the game gone?’
And Baviaan winked. He knew.
Said the Ethiopian to Baviaan, ‘Can you tell me the present habitat of the aboriginal Fauna?’ (That meant just the same thing, but the Ethiopian always used long words. He was a grown-up.)
And Baviaan winked. He knew.
Then said Baviaan, ‘The game has gone into other spots; and my advice to you, Leopard, is to go into other spots as soon as you can.'”

– Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories (How the Leopard got his Spots)

Now, hopefully most of you have read Just So Stories (if you haven’t, O Best Beloved, do it now!). They were an integral part of my childhood, even before I knew the collection existed. All sorts of wonderful fables to explain just how things came to be, and I loved them so much.

Of course, these are just stories, and have no real truth behind them… right? While in class today, a phrase my professor used kept sticking in my head. While talking about how prey animals can protect themselves from being detected by predators, the first option was to “be rare (or leave town)”. The way this was phrased reminded me over and over of something… until I realized it sounded just like something Baviaan would say. And truly, Baviaan spoke the truth when advising the Leopard and Ethiopian, for predator-prey relationships are truly an arms race, just as depicted in their story.

In the ‘sclusively bare, hot, shiny High Veldt, the Giraffe and Koodoo and Zebra are all easily visible to the Leopard and Ethiopian. To avoid them, they move into the forest, which is all spickly-speckly, and they change their coats accordingly to fit in. Now, the Leopard and Ethiopian are having trouble finding them, and as a result, must then change themselves to not be seen in the forest while hunting for their dinner.

And so it goes in the real world. One prey animal ends up with some sort of advantage over the predator, and those individuals who express that advantage survive to pass on their genes to the next generation. Eventually, a predator ends up with a trait able to make up for the advantage the prey animal has shown, and therefore eats better and is able to produce more offspring, passing these superior genes on as well.

Now, a few real life examples.

I just came across this video a few days ago (and promptly saved it to my favorites list). A spectacular example of mimicry, where the octopus can take on the shape and movements of quite a few different species. Who knows if the octopus is consciously deciding to look like this, or if it’s all just reflex. Still floored me.

Just an example that animals aren’t the only tricky ones. Seeing plants evolve traits like this is a great reminder that evolution isn’t a conscious effort. It’s easy to think that a species as a whole decided that one trait would be effective, but plants have no nervous systems (yet!), and all these things evolved naturally, through trial and error.

And this is adorable.

P.S. 100 total page views today!!

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Addaxes in the rumor mill.

A quick note while I have a chance. A little bird told me that there may be a few changes coming up at safaris.

I hear that there may be a new animal roaming the Harambe Reserve soon. That beautiful beast you see up above, there, is an Addax. A critically endangered desert antelope, usually found on the Sahara desert, and now in an isolated spot in Florida. This will be a welcome addition to our family, I imagine that part of the Addax facts will center on their endangered status, and they will fill that hole the scimitar-horned oryx left in our hearts (and our reserve).

I also heard that the stops on safari are officially out of beta stage and are now permanent! Apparently, guest satisfaction went up SO MUCH (like a bazillion percent) with the new ride that there’s no way they could go back to the other way. I’m so happy. Hopefully this doesn’t mean I’ve lost my training, though. We’ll see.

School is school is school and I’ll hopefully have a good new post up soon!

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Strange effects of Toxoplasmosis gondii

Flipping through a few of the “Freshly Pressed” blogs here on WordPress, I came across this post. In it, a pregnant woman is screened for T. gondii, a fairly routine test, but she describes the virus in a little more detail.

Now, I first heard about T. gondii in my comparative anatomy class, with a quick snippet about how pregnant women need to avoid it. Then, a year later, in my developmental biology class, my professor mentioned details on how the virus affected the development of a fetus, and the importance of keeping a pregnant lady away from kitty litter.

But what really got me was the Radio Lab feature I listened to one day. In it, they went deeper into the true effects of the virus, explaining how it controls the mind of the rats that it infects in order to get to it’s breeding grounds, the intestines of cats. What the virus does to the rats is take the natural reaction, fear of cats, and turns it on end. Suddenly, the rat is actually attracted to cats (In the sexual manner). Because of this, the rats make themselves available to the cats, who promptly kill them, as cats do. Then the virus can go on and reproduce inside the cat and continue the circle of life.

The virus has no reason to infect humans, it usually happens by accident, but because rat brains and human brains are so similarly wired, it has been seen to show some sort of effect on us. Some scientists think that this is why some people are cat people. It’s thought that maybe if you were exposed to the virus, and infected, that you’d have a natural affinity for cats, along with some other effects, such as slower reaction times.

Such a neat little virus.

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What do they do and why do they do it?

I decided I needed some non-Disney related posts, and also an increase in the amount of animals on this site! It’s been like 2 months and I haven’t posted anything about animals.

SO, I thought I’d treat you with a whole lot of videos today. In my animal behavior class, we’ve been watching a lot of these to make interpretations about and learn how to analyze different behaviors, and they are perfect examples of why I even have this site going.

Here’s an excerpt from Planet Earth of various Birds of Paradise trying to get it on with the females. With most animals other than humans, and especially birds, the males are the showoffy ones trying to impress the females. They have intricate displays, songs, and dances to show those ladies just why these guys are the pick of the litter. Or sometimes, these displays show the other guys they don’t stand a chance. Either way, they are awesome, and this video has some really good examples of why species diversity ROCKS.

Here is the Clark’s Grebe, which I found on Discovery’s Life, and we subsequently watched in class. I know I’ll have found true love when it goes something like this. No words, we’ll just …know.

I figure that’s enough birds, so we’ll move on to hippos. Now, we’re getting a bit crude, but here’s a behavior I saw every single day at safaris. This actually is used to help mark hippo territory, or maybe at safaris they just like hearing guests squeal. I will never understand why people are surprised to see animals poop.

And, because I ALWAYS have baby elephants on the brain, here’s a couple young ones playing around. While on safari, I’ve been lucky enough to see the calves of all ages playing, and it’s most interesting to me to see the older ones interacting with the younger ones. I’ve seen Tufani knock Tsavo away with his foot, and I’ve seen Luna gallivanting around with Nidirah and Kianga in the water. Just like I say on my safaris, elephant babies are a LOT like human babies, you can always find them playing around, and a lot of times pestering their parents.

That’s all I’ve got time for now, I’ve got to get back to homework so I can graduate and do animal things.

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Adventure Safari

So, Disney’s already announced it, but I figured I might as well post about what I’ve been hearing about the new “Adventure Safari” they’re planning on rolling out over the next few months.

I’ve heard some mixed feelings among the drivers that I talked to, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it myself. I’ll tell you what we think we know (plans seem to be changing almost hourly), and you can make your own decisions.

From the sound of it, this will be like Adventures by Disney, but at the parks. Described as a backstage adventure that takes you on paths that haven’t been traveled on, through the reserve, it sounds almost like the Backstage Safari that you can currently take, but there are a few differences. For one, while the Backstage Safari is MEANT to show you how Animal Programs manages the animals, it sounds like this adventure is still “on show”, and will keep you within the storyline of Harambe and the reserve.

Another big difference is the need for physical fitness and agility. They aren’t kidding about this one. There will be a skills test before you start the adventure, and if you don’t pass the test, you won’t be going. You will need to be able to walk, climb, and some other things, I’m not sure what, but the adventure will include being attached to harnesses and being high up in the air, almost like a ropes course. Disney apparently is planning on building a giant platform in the middle of the savannah that guests will be climbing to for another view of the reserve, and includes a bridge that goes over the ride path to another platform. (This is where I, and other drivers, are kind of grumbly. ANOTHER eyesore on the savannah? Digression: To a driver, and, to guests, I imagine, there’s already a lot of little things they need to hide/clean up on the savannah, and this will make it even harder to convince guests they’re in a reserve.)

I saw a couple test groups on the savannah, and it seems interesting, though I’m skeptical of how much appeal this adventure will actually have. For the price (which sounds as if it will be fairly high), I’m thinking that few people will pay thousands to get their families to Florida, into the parks, and then even more for this experience. Although those who are looking for a little more in Animal Kingdom and have the money to spend may well be rewarded.

More updates when I find out more!

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So, my school (Michigan State University), is a great school, but when it comes to the College Program, they’re pretty dumb. I talked to countless advisors and faculty, and no one seemed to know what I was trying to do. SO, I’ve made a handy list for those of you in a similar situation, and I’m more than willing to try to help if you are also stuck at a dumb school.


  1. Go to a presentation. If you’re lucky, your school will have one. They will probably tell you who the advisor who coordinates the program is. Even if they aren’t in your major, go see them! Ask them questions and see if they know what you should do. You may be able to get college credit at your school or at least internship credit. Unfortunately, if they are dumb and don’t know what you’re talking about, proceed to the next step.
  2. Look for a school who will give you credit. In my case, I applied at Central Michigan University (nearby me, but it didn’t matter, I never went to the campus for that), but there are a few colleges listed on the DCP site. ( https://www.wdwcollegeprogram.com/sap/its/mimes/zh_wdwcp/students/education/edu_creditotherschools.html ) If you apply as a guest student (talk with your Registrar about this), you can usually get credit through them and transfer it.
  3. Make sure your credit will transfer! I tried talking to 4 different people about this, and kept getting referred back to my school’s website. Try to talk to someone, if possible, and check if the classes the other school will give you credit in transfer as anything in your school. I ended up with general credits, but that’s better than nothing. Get proof, if possible! Have someone write it down and sign it, or print off the webpage. If something changes, you want to have proof, even if it seems like a silly thing to do.
  4. Apply!! You’ll never do the program if you don’t apply. Do it as early as you can. I did it as soon as the applications went up, before the presentation even came to my school (granted, I had gone to one the year before, but, you know). The earlier you apply, the earlier you should be accepted, and the more time you have to prepare.
  5. Sign up for classes anyways. Just in case you don’t get in, don’t screw yourself over. Enroll in classes so you don’t get left in the dust if your plans don’t work out. You can always drop them once you’re accepted.
  6. Know what’s going on with your insurance/financial aid. Make sure that if you take a semester off, you’re still covered. By enrolling at one of the other schools, you should be able to earn 12 credits, which usually keeps you good for financial aid and health insurance, if you’re still on your parent’s plan as a student. You don’t want to be down in Florida, get hurt, and have to pay ginormous medical bills.
  7. Wait. After you apply, do the online interview, and the phone interview, you have to wait like a month, and it sucks.
  8. While waiting, find out what you’re doing with housing. Most dorms will let you drop your lease because they understand you have internships sometimes, but if you have an apartment or are renting a house or living in a co-op, you will probably have to find a subleaser or someone to take over your lease. Not usually a terribly difficult thing to do, as the beginning of semesters are usually a pretty good time to find leasers. (Even January isn’t too hard, I’ve found. So don’t worry about applying for the Spring program.)
  9. Also, while you’re waiting, make sure you know what your graduation requirements are. I knew my freshman year that I wanted to do the program, so I took on probably more credits than I should have, but it means that I still get to graduate on time. You should probably just make sure you know what classes you need and make sure you won’t be missing that class that’s only offered the semester you’re going to be gone and then again 3 years later.
  10. Get that purple folder!! Then you can go ahead and drop your classes, take on that subleaser, and start packing!!
  11. Do your program. Do whatever your school needs you to do for credit. Even if you’re taking a class you think is dumb, do it! It’s so much easier than real school, and it means you get credit for living in Disney World.
  12. Get the credit back to your original school when you’re done.
  13. Tell everyone how great Disney is.

Ta-da! It’s not too hard. This should mostly help you get what you need organized. For most people, don’t think of this as an internship, think of it as taking a semester off to work. Good luck!!

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Ode to the Tallest Giraffe in the World

One thing that has always struck me since starting at safaris, is the way that close to all of the drivers actually care about the animals. I figured, being a zoology major, that I would probably be in the minority, as many of the drivers (the college programmers, at least), have a theatrical background, and the animals would be second to the spieling. But even during my initial training, I saw that this wasn’t true.

Right as I started training, the two baby giraffes, Bolo and Bruehler, had been released on show, and as I (or my trainer) drove around the reserve, he would actually stop talking, start looking around, and be visibly excited about the chance to see the new baby giraffes. Now, you may be thinking, “Right, right, but those are BABY GIRAFFES, and who WOULDN’T want to see them?” And you are kind of right. But shortly after I left safaris in May, I was reminded again of how much the animals you see on a day to day basis mean to these drivers.

Just as May ended, our big male giraffe, Asante, was prepared to be transferred to a zoo in Missouri. Trading animals is common practice among zoos, and this is no strange operation. Asante would be missed by all the drivers, and he is the only giraffe I could positively identify on safari. His coat was distinctly colored, and he was a good 1-2 feet taller than all the other giraffes on the savannah. I usually referred to him as “The Tallest Giraffe in the World”.

Unfortunately, during his transport, or perhaps due to a fall he had stepping out of his crate in Missouri, Asante’s neck became broken. There are no cases of giraffes recovering from this condition. Shortly after the vet decided there was nothing they could do for him, he was euthanized. Within hours, safari drivers were talking about it. I only got to witness the online tributes, but I know there was talk among each other as well. It was like losing a co-worker and friend. One of my close friends called me a day after I told him the news, and told me he ended up crying that night, once he saw a picture of Asante with his neck broken. The picture still brings me to tears. To see something you love be that injured, and to know such a beautiful animal is now gone is not something that sits easily with you.

This post may be belated, but it is still well deserved. Asante, you were a beautiful giraffe, and I was blessed to be able to work with you. As one of my friends said, “…up until recently I got to see the most awesome giraffe every day. It was like seeing a brontosaurus daily.” I will always think of you on the big savannah in the sky.

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Babies, babies, everywhere!

SO, do you want to know the MOST exciting part about being back at safaris?


That’s right, Kilimanjaro Safaris is now a veritable nursery. You might as well start calling it “Baby Animal Safari”. There are baby animals EVERYWHERE.

I’ll start with the most recent additions to the family: three male warthogs. When I started at safaris, fellow drivers mentioned that they had been trying to get some baby warthogs, and that’s why there were always a male and female out, and it looks like it finally worked. Just two weeks ago, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore were brought on show for limited periods of time. My very last day, I finally got to see them, and I freaked.

They are so cute. Definitely not only a face a mother could love. At least when they’re tiny and furry.

And the most exciting part of my temporary return was getting to see Luna! She’s the newest baby elephant born to the herd, and she was born/released on show RIGHT after I left. SHE’S SO ADORABLE.

This is her at 1 month old, hiding out under her mother, Donna.

For those who don’t know, Animal Kingdom is home to the largest working captive herd of elephants in the world. With currently 5 males and 8 females, and 5 calves born in captivity, they are teaching us more and more about how these animals live and think.

Teeny tiny Luna at birth.

Luna was born at 288 pounds, fairly average for elephants. Most babies are born around 300 pounds, and the mothers go through a 22 month pregnancy. But: completely worth it. (At this point in my safaris, it turns into unintelligible baby talk as I coo over baby elephants.) Being able to see Luna and the rest of the babies grow up around me is so incredibly rewarding. It’s almost like I have my own kids. I now take pictures of them while I’m riding a safari just so I can look back on how tiny they used to be.

I’ll finish up with a photo I took of Luna when I was down there. She’s about 2 months old in this picture, and though it’s not the best of her, it’s the most representative of her personality. She is ALWAYS playing around, just like a little kid, just getting the hang of how to use that funny thing on her face to grab stuff. One safari, I drove by and got to watch her carry a stick in her mouth, then take it out, wave it around, and continue marching around. She is totally adorable. (That’s her, using her trunk as a snorkel in the water.)

Luna at 2 months.

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Wanyama Safari – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

So, a few days ago, I see Disney has a tour at AKL called “Wanyama Safari”. WAY TO GO, DISNEY. Stealing my name. How original. I’ll be after you with trademarks!

(My blog has nothing to do with the tour. Sorry. But it looks sweet!)

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