By Michael O Daly
PITTSBURGH, Pa.–On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Penn State New Kensington Science Club hosted a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium. The trip was open to all students, and was attended by 25 students, guests and faculty. The weather was continually threatening of showers, but attendees always seemed to be indoors when the rain fell. The trip included general admission to the park, as well as a behind the scenes tour of the facilities at the zoo, with a chance to get close to some of the animals.
The behind the scenes tour began with a large male tiger in his holding pen, as the female and their cub played in the exhibit enclosure. The guide discussed the reasons and methods for using the separation pens, explaining how in the wild, these solitary creatures would only tolerate each other during breeding season. She described how breeding programs of endangered species are dictated to the zoos by the Species Survival Plan (SSP), based on genetic diversity. Finally she discussed some of the details of the care and feeding of the largest of the big cats. The massive scale of the cat was juxtaposed with the familiar tomcat behavior he displayed.
The group then visited the indoor holding pen occupied by the lions. There, attendees saw lions at two ends of the age spectrum. In the first pen was a pair of brothers, young adults not yet in their prime. In the next pen was a lone female lion named Shiba, one of the oldest in captivity at 26 years old, who had been alone since the death of her mate in 2011.
The cats needed to be kept separate, due to the incompatibility of their personalities caused by this generational gap. The guide explained the differences between the tiger pens and the lion pens, and related these differences to the natural habitat of each cat. While the tigers, native to the subarctic forests of northern Russia, winter happily in their outdoor pens, and cool off in pools during the summer, the lions of the tropical African Savanna have an indoor holding pen, and an electrically heated rock in their display that gives them a patch of summer, even during the cold Pittsburgh winters.
Taking a path utilizing back corridors and service elevators, the group made it’s way to the PPG Aquarium. While waiting for the next part of our tour, the group encountered a researcher who worked at the zoo and specialized in the rehabilitation of sea turtles. She gave an impromptu speech on reintroducing sea turtles into the wild after rehabilitation, and the high tech way that they are tracked by satellite after being released. You can follow the path that the rehabilitated turtles take after release by tracking their progress on http://www.seaturtle.org/.
The group’s final encounter of the guided tour was with a Macaroni Penguin, named Fleury. The animal is the ambassador for the zoo, and is one of a few select animals that is accustomed to direct human interaction. The tour group gathered tightly around her as she attempted to escape the cart she was on, but was repeatedly stopped by her keeper. The keeper explained the difference between the three breeds of penguins that are housed at the zoo: Macaroni, King, and Gentoo Penguins. As the tour concluded, everyone in the group was allowed to pet Fleury on their way out. Penguins feel warmer and fluffier than they look.
This was a beautiful day, filled with information and experiences. By participating in club activities, students gain access to people, places, and animals that are usually kept behind closed doors.