Zookeeper Julie Returns to California to Save Sea Lions

July 1st, 2019

In May of 2018 I volunteered at Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) for 11 days. CIMWI is a part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program under the direction of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.  They are dedicated to positively impacting conservation through marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, research and education to promote ocean and human health.  You may remember reading about my experience last year assisting with the care of about 30 rescued sea lions and elephant seals.  This year in May CIMWI rescued 62 starving California sea lion pups and they were in a crisis situation providing medical and rehabilitation care for these animals. I was contacted to see if Como Zoo could help!  So within a few weeks, with the support of Como Friends, I was able to return to CIMWI for a week to help them with this increase of sea lions.  I again assisted with the feeding, medical treatments, and cleaning.

This time however I also got to help with rescue calls.  When people see an animal on the beach which they feel needs help they can call the CIMWI hotline.  CIMWI will then contact a volunteer to check on this call.  The first two calls I went on appeared to be two adult females not far from each other on the beach.  Both appeared to be circling and not coherent, but no signs of trauma or wounds.  It was suspected that both were suffering from domoic acid poisoning.

The week I was volunteering, CIMWI received many reports of sea lions showing signs of domoic acid toxicosis. Although the production of this neurotoxin found in algae is naturally occurring, extreme growth of this marine algae can be harmful. The marine biotoxin is passed up the food chain and thus marine mammals suffer from  Domoic Acid toxicosis.

There is no known cure for Domoic Acid (DA). Symptoms of acute DA typically subside after 72 hours as the toxin is eliminated from the body through the kidneys and excreted in the urine. Marine mammals with DA have been known to recover and successfully forage and survive in the wild. When CIMWI responds to these calls they provide signage to educate beachgoers of the situation as well as continually monitor the animal.  While putting up signage I was able to talk to several people about DA, CIMWI, Como Zoo, and sea lions.

Seeing the animals display DA symptoms was a sobering experience.  However, I feel this experience has made me better educated and aware of the reality these animals are facing. Each time I am at CIMWI I am grateful I helped an outstanding organization with their mission.

If you would like to read more about CIMWI, or follow their rescues, visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CIMWI/

– Zookeeper Julie


Como Zoo’s western lowland gorilla family gets ready to meet the public

June 26th, 2019

On Wednesday, June 26th, Como Zoo’s tight-knit family troop of western lowland gorillas made their first public appearance in Como Zoo’s public habitats in more than a year, following treatment of a complicated medical condition that’s kept the six-member family troop in a habitat space located behind-the-scenes of Gorilla Forest.

For more than a year, gorilla Alice, who turned 17 in June, has been coping with a number of medical challenges, including a complex skin picking disorder that has opened large and unsightly wounds in her skin. Similar to a condition in humans known as “excoriation disease” or “dermatillomania,” it can be a difficult condition to treat. And it’s even more complicated to cure in a young gorilla who is still nursing a 20-month-old infant, and whose complex family structure nearly defines the word “co-dependent.”

“This has been the most complicated case I’ve ever had here at Como Zoo because it involves multiple problems that have different needs for treatment, a baby that is impacted by what we do, and a family that has to be involved and accounted for every step of the way,” says Dr. Micky Trent, a large animal veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which has a long-standing partnership at Como Zoo. “Treating a gorilla is not like taking care of a human. You have to consider the impact of every move you make on the outcome for the entire troop, and that’s made this very complex.”

While the condition has not been cured, Alice’s keepers and veterinarians have decided it’s time to allow the female gorilla and her family troop access to the public habitats of Gorilla Forest.

“Alice’s health concerns have been challenging, not only for her gorilla family, but also for our zoo keepers, and the wider community of gorilla health and behavior experts who are committed to caring for her,” says Como Park Zoo and Conservatory Director Michelle Furrer. “While we’ve been sharing details about the gorilla family with visitors who’ve asked about Alice and her Nyati, we also want the wider public to know about all the diagnostic care and professional collaboration that’s gone into understanding Alice’s condition.

“She may not look very pretty right now, but we’re very pleased with the progress she’s made,” Furrer adds. “The two things that we really want the public to appreciate are that Alice is doing a great job of being a gorilla, and she’s turned out to be a terrific mother.”

Diagnosing A Multifactorial Medical Problem
Como Zoo is home to nine western lowland gorillas, including a six-member family troop that includes Schroeder, the 33-year-old male silverback, Nne, a 31-year-old female, 16-year-old Dara and her daughter Arlene, born in February 2015. The top ranking female in the group is Alice, 17, who was born at the Miami Zoo and moved to Como in 2013 at the recommendation of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, a conservation panel of gorilla keepers and other professionals that manage the health and well-being of gorillas in 51 zoos across the United States .

Recommended as a breeding partner for Schroeder, a long-time bachelor at Como Zoo, Alice delivered her first baby in 2014, an infant that died within days due to apparent feeding complications. By 2017, Alice was pregnant again, giving birth to a female that Como Zoo visitors voted to name Nyati, a Swahili word for “Unicorn.” This time, the 17-year-old female exhibited strong maternal instincts and successful nursing behavior.

Though the baby’s delivery was not complicated, Alice encountered other medical challenges just before and after delivery. While pregnant, she injured the gastrocnemius muscle located in her right calf, and still favors the leg by walking on the side of her foot. Her skin picking behavior surfaced around this time, and worsened a few months post-partum when she also suffered from a pneumothorax—free air in the chest that interferes with inflation of the lung—which required treatment by aspiration of the air while under anesthesia. During the height of her skin picking problem, Alice had opened or enlarged several large and unsightly wounds on her legs and abdomen.

“One thing that’s important to understand is that skin picking is a normal gorilla behavior,” says Hugh Bailey, lead gorilla keeper at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and a member of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan called in to consult on the case. “Gorillas can get some nasty wounds from fights, or just from being injured in their environments, and picking wounds helps to keep the injury clean. That’s why, even with really bad wounds, we often don’t treat gorillas with antibiotics because the injuries will heal on their own.”

As Como Zoo visitors may notice this summer, some of Alice’s wounds appear to be scabbed over, while others may be open and bleeding.

“You might ask, ‘Why not put a Band-Aid on her?’ and the answer is she would eat it,” says Dr. Trent. Even topical medications such as sprays and ointments pose a problem, since baby Nyati could put the medicine in her mouth as well. In fact, the close connection between Como’s gorilla mothers and babies has limited many of the treatment options available to veterinarians and keepers.

“We’ve got two babies in that troop, so whatever we do to Alice, we do to the young ones, which has been part of our rationale for the selection of drugs we use,” Trent says. “Every medicine we’ve chosen has had low penetrance into breast milk or low risk to infants if eaten. We want baby Nyati to mature normally, too, we don’t want her to be exposed to anything that would deter her neurologic development.”

To better understand both the causes and potential cures for Alice’s condition, Como Zoo turned to other gorilla keepers and facilities that are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, sharing Alice’s symptoms with members of a gorilla keeper listserv, and providing regular progress reports to the Gorilla Species Survival Plan.
As Trent explains, “The first step with any of these picking disorders is to determine if there a trigger. Our initial approach was to look for anything that might make her skin feel odd.” Tests soon ruled out allergies, skin funguses, and other viruses that could be causing the skin irritation.

The zoo also sought help from psychology and neurology consultants at the University of Minnesota, looking for advice from professionals who had had success treating similar skin picking problems in humans. In May, Como Zoo also invited the Woodland Zoo’s Hugh Bailey , and Dr. Tom Meehan, vice president for veterinary services at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo and veterinary adviser to the Gorilla SSP to observe the gorilla troop and make recommendations for moving forward.

After spending more than a week in Gorilla Forest’s behind-the-scenes animal care areas observing Alice and her interactions within the troop, Bailey and Meehan concluded that Alice’s skin picking is not due to a social or psychological problem but is instead a manifestation of various physical problems.

“This problem that she has with picking doesn’t interfere with her normal day or her ability to be a gorilla,” says Bailey. “She has a normal activity budget. She moves around fine. She eats well. She forages normally. She interacts with everyone else normally, and she takes care of her infant. None of this has been impacted by her medical condition, and it tells me that it’s not due to depression or anxiety.”

Troop Dynamics and Treatment
Visitors who have heard about Alice’s health problems often ask why the gorilla hasn’t simply been separated from the other members of her troop until she’s healed.

“But that’s just not how gorillas work,” explains Como Zoo senior keeper Allison Jungheim. “Schroeder’s job as the dominant male is to protect his troop of females and if you try and split them up, that causes a lot of stress on everyone, not just for him. If Alice were to be separated, that could also cause negative dynamic issues when you put them back together. The gorilla’s social dynamics have been a large part of our considerations all along.”

The positive bonds observed between Como Zoo’s gorillas have also reassured gorilla behavior experts that staying close to her family troop is the best medicine for Alice. While primates can experience anxiety or depression, or get picked on by higher ranking animals, Bailey says, “We just don’t see any of that with Alice. She’s part of a great group of gorillas that get along very well. They have a silverback who is very mellow and even-handed, he and the other females are great with the kids, and they settle disputes in a normal gorilla way, without a lot of aggression. The best place for Alice to recover is right here.”

In humans, skin picking disorders are usually treated with a combination of medication and behavioral therapy—an approach that’s hard to recreate for a great ape. “In people, the first line of defense is behavioral modification, and coming up with different things that a person can do when they feel the need to pick, like clenching their fists,” says Dr. Trent. Since Alice tends to pick during “down time” when she’s not eating, exploring, or engaged with her baby, keepers have created a daily schedule that includes more frequent enrichment and interaction with the gorillas, in hopes of redirecting her focus during those intervals. She is also being treated with a drug that is labeled as an anti-depressant in humans—in this case, it is being used to break a psychological feedback loop that may be giving Alice positive reinforcement from picking.

After a period of major improvement in April, Alice’s condition has remained fairly constant since May—a trend that her caregivers hope will continue when the troop returns to spending time in Gorilla Forest’s outdoor spaces this summer. “This is a very challenging disorder to overcome and Alice may never be fully cured,” says Dr. Trent. “But we know that UV light and sunshine and activity are good for many skin disorders, so we’re hopeful that she will continue to improve over time.”

For the short term, some of the interior viewing areas of Gorilla Forest will be covered to give the gorilla troop time to readjust to their outdoors before they encounter crowds of onlookers. Como Zoo’s daily gorilla training sessions at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. will also include occasional updates about how Alice and her family troop are faring. “The main thing we want the public to recognize is that although Alice has a condition that doesn’t look good, it is not detracting from her ability to function as a gorilla and to take good care of her baby, and to enjoy food, and to do all the things gorillas do,” says Dr. Trent.


Surveying AIS on Minnesota’s Lakes!

June 23rd, 2019

I have completed my training and am officially an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Detector for the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC)! So now what? Well, now I must complete a minimum of 25 volunteer hours this year.

Volunteer Options

There’s lot of options for how to complete your volunteer time. They highlighted citizen science, education/outreach, stewardship, and program support as the main categories. After finishing my training, I started receiving regular email communication about different opportunities that I could be a part of throughout the state. I was getting a little discouraged because it seemed like many of the events from a fish project to tabling at fairs were at least an hour away from St Paul or required gear like waders which I don’t have. One option that is always available to us is to conduct AIS surveys on our own. This month I created my own sampling rake and surveyed on Lake Como!

Sampling Rake

One simple piece of equipment that you can use to help identify AIS is a sampling rake. The AIS Detectors program did not supply us with sampling rakes but gave us instructions on how to make one. The materials needed are two garden rakes, duct tape, zip ties, and at least 30 feet of rope (around a cord caddy). They estimated the cost to be about $20, but mine ended up around $25 plus another $10 for a saw.

The steps to make the sampling rake were really easy except the very first step. The instructions simply said “1. If your garden rakes come with handles, remove them.” Well how do I do that? My garden rakes had no screws or anything connecting the wooden part from the metal part. I then googled how to, tried different things, but was successful when I finally bought a hand saw in order to saw the wooden handles off. From there you simply put the rakes back to back, zip tie them together, and duct tape the handles with one end of the rope. After figuring out the sawing step, it only took about five minutes to create the beauty seen below!

Surveying at Lake Como

Alright, now I’ve been trained on what to do and have my sampling rake, so it’s time to actually get my hands dirty! I decided to start close to home and just go to Lake Como to survey. There were no current reports of any AIS from the DNR in Lake Como, so I chose to do two different locations on the lake. As AIS Detectors, we can survey from public spaces, so I chose a dock and a shoreline spot with benches. My first time surveying for AIS was super fun, slimy, smelly, and challenging! To use the sampling rake, you uncoil some of the rope and toss the rake in while holding the caddy. Then you pull the rake back in and see what it brings with it! Below are two videos showing the rake in action! One shows my first attempt where I did not have enough string uncoiled, so the rake snapped back out of view. Oh well. After more practice, you can see in the second video that I’m getting the hang of it! (with cues from my photographer/videographer Carsten – thanks again for your help!)

Once you pull the rake back in though, the hard part begins. Look at this pile of plants – it’s so hard to try and pick out what something is and identify it correctly! Everything is all mixed together and falling apart and covered in mud and slime.

I gave it my best effort and spent about two hours picking apart piles of aquatic plants and snails trying to figure out what they were. My waterproof AIS Detector guide was incredibly useful as seen below!

It was really beautiful out on the lake sometimes and really slimy and gross sometimes.

My beautiful rake is well used now. A reminder that if you use anything on one of Minnesota’s beautiful lakes to CLEAN, DRAIN, DISPOSE. I had quite a few little hitchhikers (snails) on my sampling rake after one throw, so imagine what can get on your boat or other materials! Read more from the DNR at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/preventspread_watercraft.html


AIS Detectors are not experts! Our job is to help survey the incredible amount of water that is in our state. If we find anything suspicious, we submit a report to the AIS specialist with the DNR for our region. They follow up and take next steps if needed. Eventually it would be communicated to the public and reported on the infested waters list (https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/ais/infested.html). In the entire state of Minnesota, there are 10 AIS specialists! Think of the amount of water they are trying to cover. I walked away from even my two hours on the lake feeling accomplished. Four months ago, I could not even tell you what native plants and animals are in our lakes, much less survey and identify native versus aquatic species. Today I actively contributed to efforts to protect the Minnesota water bodies that I enjoy so much! Thank you so much MAISRC for having this opportunity and Como Friends for funding my involvement!


AIS: From Novice to Knowledgeable!

May 15th, 2019

For the last month, I have been working to transform from a nervous person who doesn’t know anything about identifying fish and plants to a competent volunteer for the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC). This process had two main parts: online training and an in-person workshop. Both parts focused on 11 aquatic invasive species (species that live in water, are not native, and cause or have high potential to cause harm) that are a top concern in Minnesota. The 11 species are:

Plants = Eurasian Watermilfoil (pictured), Hydrilla, and Starry Stonewort

Invertebrates = Rusty Crayfish, Zebra Mussels, Quagga Mussels, and Spiny Waterflea (pictured)

Fish = Bighead Carp, Silver Carp (pictured), Round Goby, and Ruffe

Part 1: Online Training

Online learning has never been my favorite, but it was useful since I knew very little going into the program. MAISRC predicted it would take 8 hours to complete and it took me 7.5! First was a pre-assessment. Even though I am an educator, it was still a little disheartening to click “I don’t know” 25 times in a row. The next phase included 6 modules of slides with voice-over information from the course instructors. It was nice that I could break these modules up and go at my own pace. I also loved that one of the instructors would sneak little one-line jokes into the audio, such as that “spiny waterflea are planktonic animals related to crabs, lobsters, and crayfish – but less tasty!” The online learning ended with an open notes check-out assessment that you must pass before attending the in-person workshop. You need 17 out of 24 to pass and can take it 10 times to get that score. Thankfully, I passed the first time with a 23 out of 24 and treated myself to a brownie as a reward!

Part 2: In Person Workshop

I was super excited for the in-person workshop. There were 5 different dates and locations to choose from for the workshop. I selected the one closest to the Twin Cities, which was in Arden Hills. I really was not sure what to expect, but it definitely exceeded my expectations. The workshop had around 25 people, and we got to participate in small group, individual, and whole group activities. These activities really helped me to apply the knowledge that I learned in the online modules. There were lots of moments like, “oh that’s what they meant by a central axis and leaflet pairs”.  A lot of time was spent identifying specimens using our amazing AIS Identification Guides. We did not have live specimens but photos, models, and preserved specimens. The fish models on a stick were particularly Minnesotan!

It was also fun to connect with our instructors in person, chat with some of the other volunteers, and have a delicious taco buffet lunch! The only thing I did not enjoy was another assessment at the end of the in-person workshop. Tests make me nervous, but at least it was open book and notes again. I just got the email this morning that I passed with a score of 19 out of 20! I am now officially an AIS Detector and I can’t wait to start logging some volunteer hours!!!

Try It Out!

Want to test your aquatic invasive species knowledge? Give it a try with some of my trivia below!

#1) True or False: Zebra mussels have a flat edge and won’t fall over when set on it.

#2) Do carp have eyes that are typically above or below the midline?

#3) Which one is an invasive species, and which one is a native species?



– Alexa, Learning Experiences Specialist


Apply Now To The Youth Engagement Program

May 6th, 2019



The Youth Engagement Program (YEP) is a program for any youth entering 9th – 12th grade in the fall of 2019 who have a desire for gaining knowledge in the conservation field.  YEP will offer youth a unique environment to learn from professionals in their respective fields, have fun and learn about conservation in our community.  Como asks that youth who join YEP come with an open mind and the desire to be engaged.  Youth who sign up for the program will be considered volunteers of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory.  This program is FREE to participating youth as costs are covered by the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment Grant.

YEP will have three, one-week sessions, June 10-14, June 17-21 and June 24-28. Each of the one-week sessions are independent but may have some overlap of activities. Meeting times will be 9:00am to 3:00pm, Monday through Friday. This program will be a combination of learning from our experts at Como, as well as visiting other organizations to connect and learn from them. The application period is open until Friday, May 10th. You are encouraged to apply early, and share your excitement with friends who may also be interested in joining.

Highlights of the program include:
• Networking with professionals in conservation and related fields
• Field trips to fun destinations that support conservation and sustainable practices
• Giving back to the community via service work
• Behind the scenes visits with Como staff
• Connecting with fellow youth who share your passion and interests

Ready to apply? We thought so! Here are the steps you need to take to get started:
• Download, print and complete the application
• Obtain the required signatures – youth and parent or guardian
• Submit completed application by May 10, 2019
• Questions? Call 651-487-8271 or email: tim.buer@ci.stpaul.mn.us