Archive for February, 2009

Alan Varsik, Santa Barbara Zoo

Posted at 6:59 pm February 12, 2009 by admin

Alan likes to tell the story of how he was inspired to pursue a career in conservation on a field trip while he was a biology student at Cal Poly State University (San Luis Obispo) and saw a wild California condor in 1983. He joined the staff at the Santa Barbara Zoo as its first full-time general curator in 1999. His first zoo job was as a keeper at the Oakland Zoo and he has since worked at the Brookfield Zoo and the Lincoln Park Zoo, both in Chicago and at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where he was the zoological manager for the Tree of Life. He received his master’s in conservation park management from DePaul University in 1995. Alan is vice chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Board of Regents and population manager for Channel Island fox. He serves as vice president of the Friends of the Island Fox.

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Oregon Zoo Receives Three Condors With Colorful Pasts

Posted at 5:53 pm February 12, 2009 by admin

New female birds expected to enhance zoo’s already successful breeding program

PORTLAND, Ore. — Three California condors — a would-be homewrecker, the survivor of a shotgun blast to the face, and a bitter old maid — will make a fresh start in the Northwest, looking to find love in the Oregon Zoo’s condor program.

Despite these birds’ soap-opera pasts, the zoo recently welcomed them to its facility at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where the notorious trio will augment an already successful program for breeding the endangered condor. The birds arrived from the Los Angeles Zoo.

Kojjati, a female condor from California, had been involved in several love triangles while in the wild and was always dumped for the other female. The drama that inevitably ensues in these situations endangers the eggs and young chicks — the primary reason Kojjati was taken out of the wild.

“Condors are normally quite careful around the eggs and chicks, but when they’re upset the birds become reckless,” said Shawn St. Michael, condor curator. “While Kojjati is in our breeding program, she will be paired alone, which will eliminate any possibility of her interfering in another pair’s relationship.”

St. Michael is hopeful that a young, single condor can mend Kojjati’s broken heart and that she will soon begin laying eggs with a mate of her own.

Timocho was taken out of the wild a few years ago after reports that she had possibly sustained an injury while in a national wildlife refuge. Upon her capture, it was discovered that Timocho had been shot in the face by a shotgun. Pellets from the blast had damaged one of her eyes and her tongue, and fractured bones in and around her mouth. (To see video of Timocho click here.)

Although her situation appeared bleak, Timocho was taken to the Los Angeles Zoo and nursed back to health. She was hand-fed at first, but now is able to eat standard food without assistance.

“Timocho has come along way since her injury,” St. Michael said. “She can never be released back into the wild, but she is healthy and has learned to overcome her disabilities and permanent injuries.”

Timocho will be paired with Willie, a condor who can sympathize with Timocho’s situation. As a young chick, Willie was accidentally injured by his parents and lost the use of one of his eyes. Timocho has laid eggs that have hatched in the wild, and St. Michael is very optimistic that the condor program will see chicks from the pair.

The third condor acquired by the zoo is Elewese, a relatively old bird who has lived most of her life in a condor center. St. Michael is uncertain whether they will try to pair her with a male, but says Elewese has embraced her matronly role and is content serving as a mentor to the other young condors in the program.

The zoo’s condor recovery efforts take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in Clackamas County on Metro-owned open space. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for birds to survive and breed in the wild.

Condors, the largest land birds in North America, have wingspans of up to 10 feet and weigh 18 to 30 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, often engaging in play. Their range extended across much of North America during the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago. By 1940, that range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California, and in 1967 condors were added to the first federal list of endangered species. In 1987, the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity and a captive-breeding program was developed.

In 2001, the Oregon Zoo became the third zoo in the nation to join the California Condor Recovery Program. California condor breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. The Oregon Zoo was the recipient of the Wildlife Society’s Conservation Award for “creating the nation’s fourth California condor breeding facility” in April 2005.

The condor recovery goal is to establish a captive population of 150 birds and two separate wild populations of condors, one in California and the other in Arizona. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Condor Recovery Program coordinate and implement the recovery program and provide oversight of all program partners.

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Washington’s pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.

The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors are encouraged to ride MAX or take TriMet bus No. 63. Visitors who take the bus or MAX receive $1 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit for fare and route information.

General admission is $9.75 (12-64), seniors $8.25 (65+), children $6.75 (3-11), and infants 2 and under are free; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at or by calling 503-226-1561.

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Oregon Zoo
4001 SW Canyon Rd.
Portland, Oregon 97221

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Big Progress at Santa Barbara Zoo Condor Exhibit

Posted at 5:32 pm February 10, 2009 by admin

I couldn’t be more excited about the progress we’ve made in the construction of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new Condor Country exhibit. It really is coming along – to the point that we are ready to receive birds.

The exhibit’s rockwork are really works of art. We took fabricators from out to the Sespe area to see the type of cliffs where the wild condors nest. They took pictures and have managed to capture the distinctive coloration of that area. I told the the fabricators to get good pictures of the rockwork now, before it gets added coloration – in the form of condor whitewash!

The rockwork “cave” has three small jagged-framed windows that the public can use to view birds inside or near the entrance. The rest of the exhibit is viewed through mesh, from upper viewing area on two different levels, and from the boardwalk below, looking up the hillside. The inside of the exhibit is quite steep and we’ve had to stabilize soil prior to landscaping to keep it in place during the winter rains. We’ll remove the erosion prevention material before the birds get in the exhibit – though it is biodegradable, the birds could mess with it in a variety of ways.

One 25-foot and one 35-foot fabricated snag have been installed and the existing oak and redwood trees have been pruned. These, along with the rock work elements, provide for a variety of perching opportunities while still allowing significant glide paths. All the exterior stainless steel mesh is installed, having been hand “sewn” in place by workers. The structure supporting the mesh is exterior to the exhibit, making all the walls “elastic like” and without hard elements.

The new condor holding area has two large rooms that are ready for their new residents. We’ve made sure that the spaces are as flexible as possible, to give us plenty of options for facilitating introductions (through mesh openings) and managing the birds with the exhibit. There are actually two management spaces attached to the exhibit that will provide us with ample management flexibility.

The California Trails area, that the condors are a part of, also features other local endangered species, such as the Channel Island fox. Their renovated exhibit is on a steep hillside and is actually comprised of two separate outside spaces. They may have been hard to spot in the old, shady exhibit space – but their new space should provide them with comfortable spaces that are also very visible. We will continue our breeding program for these foxes, found only on the islands off the Santa Barbara coast, visible from our Zoo’s hilltop.

Our bald eagles will also have a renovated exhibit to return to. Today as I was walking through, workers were pruning the huge trees in the exhibit (and they sure did need it). One of our eagles likes to perch up high, and this will give him even more places to land. It will also be sunnier and allow for more air flow in and around the exhibit. Both of our eagles suffered injuries in the wild that have eliminated the possibility of returning to their native habitat.

The curbs for the walkways have all been poured and the adjacent new desert tortoise exhibit space is taking shape. We’ve decided to add some large lizard species to the exhibit, so we curved the exhibit walls inwards and smoothed them to keep the critters from escaping.

Construction is underway on several prefabricated exhibits for a small building once used for desert reptiles. The new exhibits showcase endangered amphibians found in the Los Padres National Forest, such as the red-legged frog. We’re involved in the conservation programs of these species and wanted the public to be able to see them.

Rich Block, our Zoo CEO, liked the rockwork on the condor exhibit so much, he asked workers to create some rocks on the exterior of this exhibit as well, tying it visually to the rest of the exhibit.

Our opening date for California Trails is tentatively set for Wednesday, April 22 – Earth Day. I’ll post a few times so you can follow our progress.

Alan Varsik, Assistant Zoo Director