Baby giraffes and elephants are crowd favorites at the Fort Worth Zoo, but what people don’t see are the hundreds of species being conserved behind the scenes.
The zoo works to save creatures from lizards and amphibians to baby birds in a Jurassic Park-like incubator room. The staff participates in about 137 species survival plans — programs that are charged with the breeding, conservation and in some cases, the release of endangered species. In some cases, like the federally endangered Louisiana Pine Snake, the zoo partners with other zoos nationwide to execute the release and management of the species in the wild.
Some animals that are bred in the zoo are part of species survival plans, said Mike Fouraker, the executive director at the Fort Worth Zoo. As time went on, some species survival plans shifted from breed-and-release programs to breed-and-hold-in-captivity programs.
In order to create genetically diverse populations, healthy animal populations exist for zoo visitors to discover and learn about and, if needed, be released to the wild if populations diminish.
Fouraker arrived at the Fort Worth Zoo as the director of animal programs and conservation in 1991. In 2001, he became executive director of the zoo.
“When they first started, they focused very concisely on extremely endangered animals and animals that we would have a chance of putting back into the wild,” Fouraker said. “Over that 35 years, they have kind of veered off course, and they’re no longer conservation focused.”
As the species survival projects shifted away from conservation, the Fort Worth Zoo dedicated itself to conservation programs. However, the Fort Worth Zoo could not manage nor afford to execute conservation projects alone, so they sought partnerships with other zoos and organizations, Fouraker said.
The zoo spearheaded a number of animal conservation organizations for endangered species. Thus, nonprofits International Rhino Foundation and International Iguana Foundation were born — both of which were dedicated to the protection of the populations in their respective habitats.
Not all species survival plans require reintroduction into the wild, Fouraker said. Some projects monitor the well-being of a species’ population and others protect populations from being poached.
“Bringing and creating a great experience for our guests brings in our dollars that we’re able to spend on conservation,” he said. “Without our guests’ experience, having our guests come to experience the collection and enjoy the park, we wouldn’t have the money to put it into conservation.”
Survival plans for mammals rarely involve release into the wild. The process for mammals is majorly domestic.
The Fort Worth Zoo houses two 1-year-old giraffes, Jelly Bean and Snickers, and a weeks-old giraffe named Pele, who was born on the then-hottest day of the summer, June 12. Pele was named after the Hawaiiian goddess of volcanoes and fire.
A portion of the zoo’s mammal work deals with transportation of animals from zoo to zoo or if the species survival plan suggest they move to a different institution, said John Ward, the mammal curator at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Every two years, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which creates the species survival plans, sends out a survey of wants and needs.
After it is determined that animal must move, the process of transferring the animal begins.
First, spacing concerns are addressed, like whether the receiving zoo has space for quarantining the animal to prevent disease transfer.
Then, the animal is introduced to their exhibit counterparts and then to the public.
In 2006, the Fort Worth Zoo founded the International Bongo Foundation to support bongo conservation, breeding and education programs. The program focused on the reintroduction of bongos to Kenya.
Partners in Kenya care for and monitor bongos.
Recently, the Fort Worth Zoo and its partners in Kenya released some of the first bongos to Mount Kenya, Fouraker said.
It’s hard to breed and release large mammals, Ward said. “We’re more of a vessel for conserving them. We do a lot of conservation efforts in other countries.”
In house, the Fort Worth Zoo also cares for a baby lesser kudu calf named Dragon and a 9-month-old elephant named Brazos that just reached the 1,000-pound milestone.
“A lot of the mammals we display here aren’t threatened in the wild,” Ward said. They don’t breed for release.
Similar to mammals, most species survival projects surrounding birds do not involve release into the wild.
That does not diminish the efforts of bird zookeepers at the Fort Worth Zoo. In February and March 2022, a few greater flamingos hatched, marking another milestone for staff — the zoo has now bred four species of flamingo successfully: lesser flamingo, greater flamingo, Caribbean flamingo and Chilean flamingo.
“It’ll take them about another month and a half before they’re fully feathered and then they’ll go to exhibit in about three months,” Amanda Zalewski, supervisor of birds at the Fort Worth Zoo, said.
The baby greater flamingos are bred partially by zoo keepers and partially by the mother flamingo to avoid losing any babies.
“We pull a good number of our eggs for breeding just to make sure nothing’s going to attack it,” Zalewski said. “Our flamingos do like to break each other’s eggs to try to steal that spot.”In the incubation room, which is currently incubating roadrunner, turkey, kori bustard and bust-crested bustard eggs, “dummy eggs” are kept to trick parents.
Dummy eggs are infertile eggs that zookeepers use as placeholders in nests.
“When the parents lay, we’ll put the fake ones underneath them and take the real ones. We can just go swap out once the eggs are close to hatching. We do that with all of our flamingos,” Zalewski said.
Zookeepers determine when an egg is infertile by using a flashlight to peek inside eggs and check for embryos. After a few weeks of no growth, zookeepers determine the egg infertile and use them as dummy eggs.
In a pen next to the incubator room, several ocellated turkey chicks ran around and hid behind a tree. Next to them, pygmy goose chicks sat in a tub bundled up against each other.
“This is more so for the captive population, they do have one of those SSPs, or species survival plans, and we participate with that,” Zalewski said. “It seems like a lot of birds out there, there’s not a lot of zoos breeding them, so anything we can get to help the captive population is wonderful.”
The African pygmy geese, the smallest of the world’s waterfowl, is not particularly endangered, but the population is declining, though, it is difficult to determine population due to its wide range of habitats.
But because the population is not in immediate danger, the African pygmy geese are bred for in-zoo populations.
Most Fort Worth Zoo visitors don’t know that inside the Museum of Living Art, only about one-third of the building is used for public display. The remaining two-thirds of the building are used for breeding, researching and managing species with survival programs.
From endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtles to Puerto Rican crested toads, the team at the Museum of Living Art cares and monitors the well-being of ectotherms, or animals that are dependent on external heat sources.
In giant incubators, Louisiana pine snake eggs sit in boxes and in small cases, tiny ectotherms hop, squirm and lay around.
Some species, like the recently released Louisiana pine snakes and horned lizards, are bred and released in partnership with other zoos. Other species like the Roti Island snake-necked turtles are monitored in their habitats.
Shield tail agamas are “just managed for exhibit purposes,” Diane Barber, the curator of ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo, said. “They don’t have any conservation potential right now. They are from a very small isolated area in East Africa. So someday, there probably will be in trouble.”
The Roti Island snake-necked turtles are critically endangered, Barber said. They are heavily collected for the Indonesian pet trade and they only inhabit a 25-square-mile radius.
The Puerto Rican crested toads are bred and studied at the Fort Worth Zoo; the toads are released six times a year in Puerto Rico.
“A lot of times agencies come to us and ask us to start working with species,” Barber said.
Agencies like Texas Parks and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife reach out to the zoo to begin work on conservation of certain species, for example the horned lizard and Louisiana pine snake projects.
“They knew that we had successfully reproduced other species,” Barber said. “They come to us and ask us to help and they brought animals to us from the wild to start this as a nucleus population to start doing this work with.”
The zoo team partners with the Houston toad program to breed and reintroduce Houston toads in Bastrop County. The team is currently building a new facility at the Fort Worth Zoo.
“We’ve always been one of the leaders in a lot of the new initiatives,” Barber said.
The Fort Worth Zoo’s conservation efforts range from ectotherms to birds to large mammals each with an organization or program dedicated to the respective work.
The work is made without a time limit on conservation.
“As we’ve started all these organizations, we keep a staff member and a governing role, either as a director, president of the board or sitting on the board of these organizations, but they are also standalone,” Fouraker said. “So, 20 years from now, these organizations will still be operating and still be regardless of the direction.”
Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.