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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Our Ancestor Saved by Bonobos

Kizito and I created an eight page educational booklet for the Milwaukee County Zoological Society. In it we told a local legend from a village where bonobos were not hunted:

"Once, in a village not far from Lake Mai-Ndombe, there lived a courageous young woman named Miesi. One day Miesi decided to go by herself to the fields, as her sisters were busy. But the forest was dangerous because of a great tribal war. On the path deep in the forest, she was surprised by a group of warriors from the enemy tribe. They demanded nastily, “Whoa, where are you going, woman?”

“I am going to my field of bananas,” she responded bravely.

In spite of her fear, she kept her wits and reproached them: “Watch out. My husband, the celebrated great warrior, is behind me with his band of hunters. Run away quickly before they find you here.”

The warriors broke out in laughter; they did not believe her story. “We are not blind, woman! We can see that you are by yourself! Ha ha! Prepare to die!” With that, they pointed their spears at her. Trembling, the poor Miesi thought that her last hour had come.

Just as they were about to dispatch her, a great war cry burst like thunder from the forest. Behind the young woman, the trees tossed violently. The men were petrified. Then a band of bonobos surged forward, throwing branches toward the enemy and screaming their cry of attack. The warriors, who knew the strength and intelligence of the species, pleaded to Miesi, “Pardon us, woman! Have pity!” But the bonobos continued to advance. The warriors abandoned their weapons and fled.

Miesi went back to her village and told her astonishing story, which was transmitted from father to son until our days. Maman Miesi was the ancestor of today’s tribe. To repay the debt for Miesi’s life, the people don’t eat bonobos."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Kinshasa's Mystery Man of Adventure

I've had these pictures for years, but have never shown them, because "Luc" (his pseudonym in the book) liked to hover in the shadows of anonymity. In respect for his wishes, I have now used digital technology to mask his face.

Luc was an adrenaline junkie friend. One time he took the bonobo researcher Dr. Jo Thompson on a tour of Kinshasa as a favor. While on the road, he and Thompson came across an overturned beer truck with soldiers already at the accident scene. Of course, Luc had to stop to take pictures (he carried a "Press" card expressly for the purpose), probably because, the paranoia of the local politics made photographs expressly forbidden.

The next thing Thompson knew, Luc was wrestled to the ground with machine guns pointed at him. His film was confiscated, but somehow they managed to wiggle out of that predicament. Jo said that I had some wild crazy friend, and no thanks, she didn't need anymore Kinshasa tourism.

In 1993, Kinshasa erupted for the second time in civil disorder, with rampaging soldiers prowling the streets, looting stores, and looking for trouble. I should have learned from the first time, but still being somewhat of an adrenaline junkie myself, I got talked by Luc into going out in the foray.

Luc's truck broke down when the wiring burst into flames under the dash. We were surrounded by soldiers and forced to accompany them back to the institute. Fortunately, Luc got the wounded truck started, but it died permanently as soon as we arrived. I made Luc spend the night on my couch. From Grains of Golden Sand:

"In the light of day, we saw that a bullet had ricocheted off of an animalerie wall and smashed neatly through the exact center of Luc's windshield. We found the bullet nestled in the driver's seat. Luc was enormously proud of this keepsake and insisted that I take a photo of him and the grinning guards with his holed windshield. He also wanted one of the singed wires. He said that a headlight fuse had melted, the fault of a friend's limited electrical talents. Luc repaired his car by bypassing the frayed wiring and was able to cruise out, a smile on his face. He promised news and food. I couldn’t help but admire his guts and joie de vivre."

The three photos show Luc with the melted wiring, holding the spent bullet, and showing the bullet hole and the Press card in the windshield.

Photos by D. Messinger

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Zoo Recovers from Tropical Storm Fay

With Fay, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens was subjected to a downpour that lasted three days. One of the keepers says that he emptied a six inch rain gauge twice and the third time there was a inch or so of water left.

For two nights the zoo's ride out team spent the evening checking on the animals, trees, fences, and life support systems. They also cleared the roads to allow other staff to work and helped with damage assessment. Having only a skeleton crew on Thursday and Friday, the zoo was cleaned up and open to the public by noon on Saturday.

The top photograph shows the Range of the Jaguar in the storm, with a cart in the background piled high with branches, where the horticultural staff were working in the rain to remove debris. The second photo shows a large storm drain on the Main Path with a barricade around it. At its peak, the water was over 18 inches deep at this location.

A little further down the Main Path, the third photo shows the washed out mulch, leaves, and mud that littered the entire area on Friday. In the last picture, staff are working rapidly on Saturday to get the zoo ready to open. Everybody pitched in to get the job done.

Photos by D. Messinger

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Moving Animals for Tropical Storm Fay

In preparation for a hurricane at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, some animals are moved to indoor quarters. In Florida's sub-tropical climate, fruit bats are considered "injurious," so they are caught up and secured in buildings. The top photo shows keepers netting the bats, and the second photograph is a close-up of a fruit bat.

The wattled cranes (note the goggles to protect the eyes from the sharp beaks) had to be displaced due to the large number of trees in their yard. The last two photographs show a Kori bustard being transported in a pet kennel, and the two Kori's in a temporary safe house. They were moved from an off exhibit breeding area close to the river, for fear of flooding.

Hurricane readiness is being prepared for the worst case scenario. In fact, the bats and their exhibit were fine, the trees stood in the wattles crane exhibit, and there was only minor flooding in the Kori exhibit.

Photos by D. Messinger

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zoo Preparation for Tropical Storm Fay

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens safety committee is responsible for the preparation of weather related events, including hurricanes. Situated along the Atlantic coast, the zoo is on hurricane alert six months per year, from 1 June to the end of November.

One important job for staff is to secure items that can become projectiles in the high winds or can float and become damaging battering rams in flood waters. Seen above are keepers moving supplies to a storage building and turning over and chaining picnic tables together. Normally exhibit props such as wood pieces, conduit, rocks, and pots are kept outdoors, but for a hurricane, they are brought indoors, as seen in the service area of the Lost Temple in the Range of the Jaguar exhibit.

Special precautions are taken for venomous snakes -- these animals are taken to a concrete block reptile service area, where they are confined in labeled plastic containers. Finally, on a case by case basis, certain animals, such as the mambas, are shifted into their acrylic holding areas. These snakes are trained to move, similar to an antelope going into its stall where the door can be shut remotely, so that these highly dangerous animals do not need to manipulated.

Photos by D. Messinger

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tropical Storm Fay; Safeguarding Zoo Animals

For a while, she menaced as a Hurricane category one, but then Fay wiggled and waggled and stalled in the middle of the state before blowing in as a tropical storm that dumped up to 20 inches of rain in some areas over several days, starting Wednesday, the 20th of August.

Like other zoos in susceptible parts of the country, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has a hurricane preparedness team consisting of key staff in the security, facilities, and animal departments. As the zoo is bordered by the Trout River, planning for a wind and flooding event is critically important. Volunteers are selected for a "ride-out" team that stays at the zoo overnight to care for animals and deal with downed trees, power outages, flooding, and life support systems monitoring.

Water loving birds such as swans fare well in a storm and they are left out in the open air to weather it as they would do in the wild. Animals are generally well equipped to handle inclement weather. In fact, capturing and moving the fragile looking flamingos would be harder on the birds as opposed to letting them ride the storm out on exhibit.

The decision of security for each zoo species in a hurricane comes from an understanding of the animal's biology, from past experience, and from an assessment of the risk of flooding or falling branches.

Large trees can potentially damage fences so hoofed stock, such as rhino, are typically brought indoors to stay in the barn during a storm event. Some animals are given access between a stall and a small outdoor holding pen because they are more comfortable with having the choice. With limited staff access, it is more efficient and less time consuming to check and feed animals that are confined to stalls and holding yards.

Giraffes are unusual in that that they do not naturally seek shelter from rain. Given their height, lightening is a special risk for them. They are not allowed to go out on exhibit when a hurricane is imminent, but kept in the holding yard so that they can easily be put in the barn for their protection.

During a hurricane, all great apes and carnivores are kept inside in their night houses. Similar to humans and our carnivore pets, it is believed that these animals prefer the sense of calm of "home" during the wind, rain, lightning, and thunder.

Photos by D. Messinger

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bonobos Take it Easy

Left to right, Lexi, Lily, and Lorel, three female bonobos at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens relax in the grass on exhibit. The species natural range is the equatorial Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire), so the hot, humid summers and mild winters means that the group can be outside nearly year around.

Photo by D. Messinger

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Making Ends Meet in Kinshasa

One of the ways I made money to stay in Kinshasa to care for the bonobos was through advertising for a telecommunications company called Telecel. From Grains of Golden Sand:

"“Mr. Telecel” became the figurehead on our billboards, grinning and straddling the planet Earth. His outswept hands, one gesturing with a cellular phone, embraced the notion of the logo: Ca, c’est Tout a Fait Telecel! This is Totally Telecel! By accident, I overheard a comment from an expat who regarded the proud, black billboard man and his electronic toy. He laughed aloud: “Only an African could come up with that ad!” I was flattered."

Kizito and I went to the factory to inspect one of the billboards that was being painted by hand. Since they hadn't painted Mr. Telecel yet, we both posed for a photograph, against the "Totally Telecel" slogan.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Leopards; Cats Eat Rats

Kizito and I befriended a telecommunications company in Kinshasa, Zaire, called Telecel. In the early 90's Telecel was a monopoly, and had no real need to advertise its expensive ($10.00 per minute) service by clunky portable telephones.

We cajoled Telecel into hiring us for an advertising campaign that included cartoons, billboards, and educational help for schools. We used what is called "social marketing", where a community service is provided and marketed. In one of our actions, we designed locally printed school notebooks which were small booklets with a few dozen blank pages that students copied their daily lessons into, from the blackboard.

The notebook above was writtten and illustrated by the two of us working together. The cover stated, "Telecel Likes African Animals." The inside front and back covers discussed the natural history of the leopard and on the back outside, there was a lesson on the natural ability of the domestic cat, in hunting rats. (Cats were feared and rarely kept; yet rodents were terrible pests and few could afford rat poison.)

In our strategy, 10,000 notebooks were sold on the market by a local printer. The extra cost for the color printing had been subsidized by Telecel, so the price was competitive with the school notebooks that were imported from China, and the printer got a profit. (All of the imported notebooks had a crude map of Zaire on the cover and a multiplication table on the back).

As our notebooks were unique, what happened was that the color plates were stolen by another printer and uncounted copies were produced, which got our conservation story out even further. We, and Telecel, were delighted.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Zairian Flag Fist and Flame

The Fist and the Flame flew over the chunk of land called Zaire from 1964 to 1997, under President Mobutu Sese Seko Da Wa Bongo. Mobutu was supported in his assent by the United States, because he was stanchly anti-communist, but toward the end of his reign, his excesseses embarassed even the Americans. From Grains of Golden Sand, a joke circulated:

"It so happened, that when Mobutu and the leader of a Western nation were both puppy politicians, Mobutu was invited to visit the foreigner’s home. Noting the manicured lawn, swimming pool, and modern furniture, Mobutu was bursting with curiosity. But he held his tongue until they were seated in the den and the door was closed. “Forgive me, but I can't help noticing that, as a politician, you live like a wealthy man. In my country, public servants go hungry. Is there a secret you can share with a poor African? I would be most grateful.”

"At this, the Westerner chuckled. “My friend, it’s quite simple. Come here and I’ll show you.”

He led Mobutu to a window, pulled the drape, and pointed. “Do you see that four‑lane highway there?”

"“Sure I do,” replied Mobutu.

"“Well,” said the politician with a conspiring wink and a patting motion against his side, “ten percent—in the pocket!”

"The enlightened Mobutu returned to his country. Years passed and both ascended the political ladders of their respective countries. They were Heavy Dudes now. One day an aide presented the Westerner with a gilded invitation to visit his old friend President Mobutu.

"The Western leader was met at the airport: red carpet, military band, native dancers, the works. His friend Mobutu pumped his hand enthusiastically. In the car, flanked by a phalanx of security, the convoy raced to Mobutu's mansion. Vast expanses of estate flashed past, and finally, the Mercedes pulled up to an enormous palace. The Western politician was astonished to note the opulence of the villa lined with rare porcelains, Gauguin masterpieces, and priceless hanging tapestries. Poor African indeed, he thought.

"Finally, the formalities were over. The liveried servants retired, and the two were left in peace in the posh library, partaking of a fine vintage. “Excuse me, President Mobutu,” the Westerner said, “but wasn't it you who asked me for help years ago? I can see you don't need much help. As a matter of fact, from you, I could learn a thing or two.”

"“My dear friend.” Mobutu beamed. “After all these years, I wanted to thank you for your advice. Everything I learned, I learned from you!”

"“Goodness, Mobutu, what are you talking about?”

"“Come, let me show you.” Mobutu stepped to double doors and opened them wide. The two strolled out onto a grand, flower‑draped terrace overlooking the mighty Zaire River. Mobutu gestured, “Look there. Do you see that suspension bridge across the river linking the eight‑lane highway?”

"The Westerner squinted. “What bridge? What highway? I see nothing!”

"“Of course not! One hundred percent—in the pocket!”"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Monkeypox on the Wrong Side of the River

In 1986, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was placed on "loan" to the World Health Organization (WHO) to work on a specific question: what was the wild animal reservoir of monkeypox disease? The WHO logo on the driver and passenger doors of the project's short-bed Toyota lent authority in the interior, where one survived by wits, bluff, and knowing what motivated action in a nation known for its paralysing inertia. We were three -- me, a Zairian driver, and a nurse. On the road for six months, we sampled small mammals in four widely varying sites in the country.

One time, in an extremely remote area of Bandundu, far from civilization, we came upon a river that we could not cross, because the ferry had shut down for the day. We were about half-way through our voyage from Lisala to Lodja to Kikwit to Kinshasa and then to Tshela, Bas-Zaire and back again to Kinshasa. (People who know the country will tell you that this route cannot be traveled by road, but we managed to do it.) Our cargo included hundreds of precious tissue samples from rodents that were ultrafrozen in liquid nitrogen.

It was only about 4:00 pm, but we could see both banks dotted with travelers, all seemingly resigned to spending the night on the wrong side of the water. A vehicle or two were also stranded, but in the usual Zairian way, no one was bucking the system -- there was a group of loiterers drinking at a dive with distorted music blaring from a battery powered boom box sitting on an overturned yellow plastic beer crate.

But for me, there was no way was I going to lose hours of driving. Cueing my driver to honk, I thumped loudly on the passenger side of the door as we rounded the bend and came to a dramatic stop in front of the white-washed official hut of the ferry-minders.

A crowd quickly assembled. I hollered, still beating on the WHO sign, "Hurry, hurry, get the ferry boatmen here quickly! We have to get to the other side tonight! Our vaccines will melt!"

The crowd was energized into shouting and the ferry workers soon trotted up. I showed them the liquid nitrogen tank in the back, and opened the lid to let them feel the instantly freezing vapor. "We must hurry and get across, this freezer will run out tonight and our precious medical supplies will be ruined!"

My driver and nurse played along, using the medical card that had always worked in the past. The people had never seen a liquid nitrogen tank, nor even a real freezer in this region. But the thought that lifesaving medicine would be lost convinced them to fire up the ferry and take us, and a load of lucky travelers on foot, to the other side.

As a thank-you, we passed out four WHO approved medicines that we were allowed to freely hand out to the population, as their usage was commonly understood: aspirin, multivitamins, a wormer, and an anti-malarial treatment. The crowd was delighted and roared their approval as we gunned off in the truck.

An hour and a half later, satisfied at our small feat of conquering the government officials, and still laughing at the expression of astonishment on everyone's faces at the ferry crossing, we stopped at a village for the night, and went to find the chief to ask for a place to stay. We knew that our passage would be the topic of wonder and many questions for months to come, as word would travel up and down the area about the crazy woman who carried a freezer in a tank, and how their quick action had saved the vaccines.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Baby Bonobo Tshilomba

Tshilomba was a feisty little female bonobo who had a mind of her own. She is seen here in diapers being held by a volunteer. Usually, we did not use diapers for the babies, because it was too messy. What we did was pay attention to a squirmy bonobo as a subtle signal of need. Then we would hold it out, tilting the baby's rear away from our clothing, to do its business.

Photo by D. Messinger

Monday, August 18, 2008

A School in Remote Zaire

This photograph was of a school class in the interior of Zaire, near Lake Mai Ndumbe. The children were holding up pieces of wood that served as chalkboards for the lessons given by their teacher, standing in the back.

As a Peace Corps volunteer teaching high school, a major frustration was the antiquated school system. The Belgians left Zaire’s curriculum from the early ‘60s. The materials were grossly outdated and instruction was based on rote memory.

To make matters worse, there were no textbooks, so pupils copied their lessons from the blackboard into thin workbooks. In turn, any of the kids who became teachers would use their notebooks to write the lessons onto the board for the next generation of students. It was an invitation to misinformation. Like a “gossip” game, lessons were passed on from one generation to the next; and they become progressively more garbled and deformed, until they made absolutely no sense at all.

These elementary kids above, however, were in such a impoverished and remote area that they did not even have notebooks in which to copy their lessons, so little was retained and little was passed on.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Play Pigs for Bonobos

These bright orange, ear tasseled red river hogs from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) were allowed to go in with the young bonobos I cared for in Kinshasa. The pigs were not too crazy about the apes, probably because the bonobos liked to ride them like horses. The pigs were enrichment for the bonobos, but the practice was discontinued when the bonobos grew larger.

My observations on how well the bonobos interacted with red river hogs led to some facilities, like the Columbus Zoo, putting these two species successfully together in the same exhibit. However, unlike my scenario, the zoo pigs are physically separated from the bonobos by hot wire.

Photo by D. Messinger

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Parrot Tail Feathers For Sale

Everything in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) had a use. These one thousand red feathers were the stash of a market dealer who normally sold live African grey parrots for the pet trade. However, since the brightly colored feathers brought a few cents each, they were carefully collected from the carcasses of any bird that died. The feathers were used in "fetishes," or charms for magic.

Photo by D. Messinger

Friday, August 15, 2008

Zoo Back to School Enrichment

Animal staff at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens prepare books, boxes, and giant carpet rolls for "Back to School" Enrichment Day on August the sixteenth. Due to its popularity, the Zoo will provide themed enrichment to the animals monthly on the third Saturday of the month. This is with the exception of Thanksgiving and Easter, for which the enrichment day will fall on the holiday Saturday.

To maintain the aesthetics of the wild habitat, normally, enrichment needs to look natural, and can include vegetation, branches, logs, scattered seeds, and sisal rope. Artificial items of plastic, cloth, cardboard, and rubber is reserved for off-exhibit use, with the exception of the special monthly enrichment days.

On Saturday morning, volunteers distribute the items, some spiked with hidden food treats, spices, and perfumes, to the keepers, who distribute them. The animals will have all day to enjoy their "toys" and guests will have a chance to enjoy watching their favorite animals acting like youngsters.

One of the important facts about enrichment for animals is that it should be ever-changing in nature and given and removed at random, intermittent intervals. For example, an animal will lose interest in a daily cardboard box, but will maintain a higher level of varied, normal behaviors throughout the week if it receives a box on Monday, a plastic ball on Wednesday, a pile of hay on Friday, and a new log on Saturday.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"Saved" by French Paratroopers

This is the only photograph I have of me during those tumultuous several days following the "events," or uprising of the local population and the Zairian military, in September, 1991. I am in an African print dress in the middle, with a few white coated workers, surrounded by the armed rescue force. French paratroopers had been sent in to secure the downtown, which included the ferry across the river to Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo, for a massive evacuation of expatriates ("expats," or foreigners).

On the third day after the uprising, I had a late night visit from a convoy gathering the expatriates for evacuation. From Grains of Golden Sand:

"We walked across the institute compound to the waiting convoy of four vehicles that were rounding up expat families to spend the night in safehouses in town. They were to cross the river to Brazzaville in the morning. My friend nervously mentioned how dangerous it was in Kin and said I could leave with his group if I wished. His family had already evacuated.

"You shouldn't stay here,” he contended. “You need protection.”

I told him that I didn't feel threatened now that the situation, with the arrival of the French, looked safer. I needed to stay and take care of the animals—including his own dogs.
“Okay. But don't you have weapons for protection?” he asked. “Do you want me to get you some?”

“Sorry, no. Guns scare the bejeebers out of me. I hate the noise, and I'd shoot my foot off if I tried to fire one.”

We were nearing the convoy, and their headlights turned Jacques-Pierre's form into a large hulking bear. “Here, let me show you,” my friend persisted. “This is the piece I carry.”

With that, Mr. Boulet whipped out the tiniest pug-muzzled pistol I had ever seen. His paw of a hand completely encompassed the peashooter.

“I can leave this baby with you since I'm out of this God-forsaken place tomorrow.”

I had to stifle a snort. “No thanks. You keep it.”

Back at the apartment, I giggled for a half-hour about my scaredy-cat friend and his itty-bitty gun. It was great to laugh for the first time in what seemed like ages. I was certain that my own brand of protection delivered a far louder bark than his revolver's bite…er, nibble."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Okapi School Notebook

Kizito and I did community service projects for Telecel, a telecommunications company in Kinshasa. We identified a school that trained girls in sewing as a trade. Their machines (sewing machines were hand operated, due to the lack of electricity throughout the country) were old and worn, so we talked Telecel into sponsoring a half-dozen new machines. We held a ceremony and gave each student okapi notebooks and pencils, to commemorate the gift of the sewing machines.

This notebook was the first one we designed, and the text was simple, "The Okapi: unique in Zaire," and "Telecel likes Zairian Animals." These booklets had a few dozen pages inside with lines (for text), grids (for math problems), or blank (for art) and were used to copy the lessons off of the blackboard. The schools did not have textbooks, so the completed notebooks were kept for years.

The okapi, a beautiful black and white striped animal related to the giraffe, occurs only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). It is one animal that the population recognizes as "special."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Bonobo Shot in the Arm

Kuni, a female bonobo at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, gets a practice "shot" with a needle-less syringe. She is trained by her keepers to hold still and accept an injection, to reduce the stress of veterinary treatment. Previously, animals had to be darted with a remote injection dart which was psychologically traumatic for them (and stressful for staff as well!).

Today, the positive reinforcement training is accomplished in small desensitizing steps: first by showing the syringe, then by touching the arm with its blunt end, and then by snapping the skin with a rubber band to simulate the sting of the needle.

Only when the bonobo is comfortable that the "ouchie" is bearable and that there is a treat reward, will saline sometimes be injected. The keepers rarely inject the animals as practice, but can give the real injections as needed by keeping the training current with the practice steps.

The bonobos are extremely trusting of their caretakers, and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens keepers are trained to give injections, such as a tranquilizer that is needed before anesthesia for the annual physical done at the zoo hospital.

Photo by M. Brickner

Monday, August 11, 2008

Every House Needs Security

As a Peace Corps volunteer on loan to the World Health Organization, I spent two months in Lisala, a small town on the northern bend of the Zaire River, where I was trained by monkeypox scientists. I was given a house to live in, complete with a security system.

My "sentinel" arrived late every afternoon, and spent the night, keeping guard outside the house. Here was his typical appearance during the day, but at night he gathered up a spear for his vigil, which was spent both watching and napping. He left at dawn. Like our own electronic "alarm" systems, human guards were as much a psychological deterrent as a real one, but beware to the home owner who neglected this essential employee.

As a foreigner, I was expected to play the "mundele" role. Mundeles were thought to be well-off (the term was used for businessmen, politicians, and foreigners), and they were expected to employ others. It was crass not to have at least a guard, cook, housekeeper, gardener, and driver. The jobs were not considered menial because that was how men could support a family.

Photo by D. Messinger

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A New Disease?

In Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC), I never saw an active human case of monkeypox. Monkeypox was so rare that the World Health Organization (WHO) had only investigated the clinical course and epidemiology of 300 cases during sixteen years of surveillance, most of them in Zaire.

The poster above was used to illustrate the important signs of monkeypox to African health workers. Two differences between it and smallpox was that monkeypox had pox lesions on the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet, as well as swollen lymph glands, unlike smallpox.

This zoonotic disease (any illness that can be transmitted from animals to man -- or from man to animals), at first thought to be "new," had actually been smoldering in the African tropics for thousands of years. When smallpox was eradicated in the late '70s, the lookalike monkeypox surfaced. As a Peace Corps volunteer, my "job" with WHO was to try and find out what animals carried the virus as the wild reservoir.

Monkeypox became important to Americans in 2003 when it surfaced in pet prairie dogs that had been contaminated by a shipment of African rodents destined for the pet trade.

Photo by M. Szczeniowski, WHO

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bonobos on Cover of GEO

Geo, a German Geographical magazine, featured two of the orphaned bonobos I cared for in Kinshasa, Zaire, on its cover of the May, 1993 issue. What few probably noticed is that the female on the left had a third mammary in the center of her belly.

The title of the article in German was "Peace Through Sex." Frans de Waal, the author and Frans Lanting, the photographer went to Germany with the story because the American audience was considered too prudish. Four years later, they published the book with an overview of behavior, called Bonobo The Forgotten Ape.

Many scientists feel that bonobo's sexual behavior has been a detriment to getting its story out to the general public in the United States. This is too bad, because the little known species has serious threats to its continued existence in the Democratic of the Congo.

Friday, August 8, 2008

BOGO Light

As a Peace Corps volunteer, a difficult adjustment to African village life was the lack of electricity, and I missed lights the most. Being on the Equator, the "day" was only twelve hours long throughout the year, with sunrise at 6:00 am and sunset at 6:00 pm.

It was a challenge to stay awake after dinner and prepare my lesson plans for the next day's classes by candlelight, which gave real meaning to the expression, "going to bed with the chickens." Everyone in the village was paralyzed at night by the darkness. What we would have given for a solar powered light....

Today this is possible with the SunNight Solar flashlight. SunNight is working with social and environmental organizations, including the Houston Zoo, to send solar flashlights to developing countries. Their website is

Two billion people, or one third of the world's population face darkness every night. Often, people use dangerous kerosene lanterns. Alternatively, they might use candles or battery flashlights, both of which are expensive and harmful to the environment. Every night, two billion people make choices that have a negative impact on their health, income, education and security.

SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light transforms the night by offering people in need a new choice. Generating clean LED light from rechargeable solar-powered batteries, SunNight Solar’s BOGO Light can go where other fuel-dependant lights can’t: to a poor person in a small village located far from the electricity grid.

The Houston Zoo collaborates with the SunNight company by offering them for sale in their gift shop and on their website. For every flashlight sold for $25, the zoo sends one to conservation projects in developing countries for distribution to deserving families.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Brushing Bonobo Teeth

A bonobo keeper at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens provides oral hygiene to Lexi, a female bonobo. Lexi is a willing participant in her own care, due to a positive reinforcement training called operant conditioning. "Clicker," "target," or "whistle training" are other terms that may be familiar to those who use positive reinforcement in dog training.

Animal training at the zoo is not for tricks. Many of the behaviors sought are related to providing optimal stress-free veterinary care, such as examination of the mouth and brushing teeth. Sometimes behaviors sought are to facilitate management or safety goals (training animals to shift easily in and out through doors without crowding or aggression, training animals to separate from each other without anxiety).

Another benefit of training is that apes enjoy the challenge of learning. As one can see in Lexi's expression, learning is its own reward. To top it off, she gets treats, such as grapes, for a job well done!

Photo by M. Brickner

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Girl with Monkeypox

This photo shows a seven-year old Zairian girl afflicted with a disease called monkeypox, two days after the onset of the rash. (She survived, and there was no scaring.) Only 400 cases of this rare disease had been described in West and Central Africa when, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was "loaned" to the World Health Organization to lead the virus ecology team in research to learn the animal reservoir of monkeypox.

Monkeypox closely resembled smallpox, the only disease that has ever been eradicated from the face of the earth (with the exception of two research laboratories). The virus was so similiar to smallpox that the smallpox vaccination was protective against monkeypox, and clinically there were only minor differences between the two illnesses.

Smallpox had no animal reservoir, and it was passed from human to human. An aggressive worldwide vaccination program literally vaccinated a geographical ring around active cases and the disease was snuffed out, country by country, until it was eradicated in the late 1970's.

Many questions were raised about the newly described disease. Where was it coming from in the wild? How easily did it pass from one human to another? Would it cessation of the protective smallpox vaccination cause monkeypox infection to skyrocket? Most importantly, could it mutate and become a new global problem?

Photo by M. Sczeniowski, WHO

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bonobos Relaxing Video

This short video clip was taken on Sunday, the 3rd of August, at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The first scene shows Lucy, the young female bonobo, soaking, and then eating a monkey biscuit with one hand, as she moves forward in the zoo moat.

The red plastic "floatie" is an enrichment toy that the animals play with. The wires seen below is electric fencing, which is part of the containment system on the high walls surrounding the exhibit.

The bonobo females, identified by their their pink bottoms, relax on the bank next to the moat and groom each other. At one point, Kaleb, a young male, pushes an adult female, with a sharp movement of his arm. The female pulls him toward her, then hugs and grooms him.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Snake in Texas

Here I am, with the ZRE, for Zaire, sticker on Texas. How she got her name and how I used her to keep people out of an unlocked building, and how I protected her from theft, during the looting, from Grains of Golden Sand:

I drove my own truck, nicknamed “Texas,” against the door to block it. (Zairians give their vehicles brawny names, such as “Jet Engine,” or “Tough Bullet.” Claiming Texas as home base, I deemed it a handle meeting Zairian standards.) Then I called over a guard and showed him how I'd obstructed the workshop door. He pointed out that now my vehicle was vulnerable to attack since it could be seen from the street.

“I know,” I said. I showed him a five-foot African rock python in an aquarium. “And this is my specially trained watch-snake.” I tipped the snake out onto the front seat, closed and locked the truck. The guard's eyes widened in surprise.

“You put a snake in there!” he yelped. A gesture of astonishment, his hand flew, palm outward, to cover his mouth.

“Bien sûr”—Darn tootin’, as we would say in Texas—“and the python will stay there until this is over. You tell the others what I did. I needed you to witness this so you can prevent disaster if someone tries to rip off my truck.”

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bonobo on International Wildlife Cover

This Nov-Dec 1993 publication of the National Wildlife Federation featured one of the orphaned bonobos that I was caring for in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). This young male displays the pink lips characteristic of the species. Frans Lanting was the photographer.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Wild Bonobos at Lukuru

This amazing photograph, taken at the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project field site, shows bonobos in the wild, wading in a perennial pool. One animal has already climbed up the bank, and her ischial callosities shine ghostlike in the darkness of the forest gloom. (Perhaps the shiny rears serve as beacons for others to follow?)

Two bonobos are caught, still in the water. The shimmer on the image comes from this picture being taken from a lens peeking out through a screen of foliage. These animals were habituated by Dr. Jo Thompson, and they were going about their day without being upset by her presence.

The regional villagers have a nonchalant, anthropomorphic viewpoint of bonobos, "Oh yeah, they go in the water, to wash themselves. They 'soap' up and then they rinse, just like people. And they fish in the water." (There is no evidence that bonobos eat fish, although they consume subaquatic vegetation.)

Photo by J. Thompson, all rights reserved