Chief Executive’s Blog

February 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Well Happy Chinese New Year. The year of the goat has begun and, as we enter spring, the days are getting gradually warmer and longer. Spring and summer always prove to be eventful seasons for everybody at RZSS, with the main breeding season for many animals in full swing and a jam-packed set of summer school classes just around the corner.

Velma the velociraptor

Velma the velociraptor

Velma the Velociraptor has been out and about this week ahead of Dinosaurs Return! which will start in April. She has been meeting the public and has proved to be a big hit so far at Edinburgh Zoo and Dynamic Earth. She will continue to meet and greet visitors at various venues across Edinburgh and Glasgow until the launch.

On Monday we receive our actual animatronic dinosaurs, all the way from America. Shipped across the North Atlantic Ocean, they are as realistic as possible and are based on actual DNA research of fossilised dinosaur skin and bones. It will be all hands to the top of the hill as these giants are unloaded and assembled on site. We are inviting press along, so there should be some really memorable photographs taken recording the occasion.

Wild about Scotland bus outside Scottish Parliament

Wild about Scotland bus outside Scottish Parliament

The Wild about Scotland bus, our educational outreach programme in association with Clydesdale Bank, visited Edinburgh Zoo this week, with lots of children taking the opportunity to hop on board and learn about Scotland’s native species. Then yesterday (Thursday 19 February) the mobile classroom pulled up at the Scottish Parliament to engage with MSPs as part of the 10th anniversary of Scottish Environment Week. MSPs including Mike MacKenzie, Bill Kidd, Christine Grahame and Liam McArthur – to name just some – ‘got on board’ the interactive classroom. During the visit to Parliament, MSPs were asked to vote and tweet their hopes for the future of Scottish biodiversity.

If you are interested in the bus coming to your school, please go to our website to request a visit . You can also follow all the action from the bus, including the activity at Scottish Parliament yesterday, via our dedicated Twitter feed

14_12_04_ScottishWildcat_1_kp_fbMeanwhile, our Scottish wildcat conservation work is ongoing. This week our team meet with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and estate managers in Ardnamurchan, to discuss of the plight of the Scottish wildcat. We are working with land managers to allow us to better monitor the wildcat population and ensure that any predator control being used is wildcat friendly. This crucial work will help to provide the Scottish wildcat with safer areas to roam and contribute to the future survival of this species.

All of the above is sadly very relevant in a week when the world’s largest earwig has been declared extinct. The St Helena Giant Earwig (Labidura herculeana) grew up to a maximum of eight centimetres long, with the last confirmed adult being spotted as far back as 1967. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has now declared the species extinct, changing its status from Critically Endangered. Since the early 1960s its habitat has been degraded, with the stones that it lived under being removed from the island by the construction industry. Through education, research and conservation, we must all work hard together to make sure examples like this do not continue to happen.

“The most important environmental issue is one that is rarely mentioned, and that is the lack of a conservation ethic in our culture.”

- Gaylord Nelson

Going Wild about Scotland through January!

February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

At the SSE Hydro, also sponsored by Clydesdale Bank.

At the SSE Hydro, also sponsored by Clydesdale Bank.

In the first month of 2015, we’ve stayed close to home. Despite freezing temperatures and snowy conditions, we visited a total of 13 schools across Edinburgh, Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, the Renfrewshires and Fife.

Our bus got its first real taste of snow during our Fife week at the beginning of the month when we visited Glenrothes and again in Glasgow in our last week. The snow got so bad at one point that a school had to reschedule their visit so the children didn’t miss out- see you in April Crawforddyke Primary! (Hopefully the snow will hold this time although in Scotland you never know!) While at Sunnyside Primary School in Glasgow, we took the opportunity to stop off at The SSE Hydro. This is another one of Clydesdale Bank’s sponsorship properties so it was only appropriate we took a photograph of the two projects side by side.

Our mascots Brodie and Gillespie playing in the snow at Our Lady and St Francis Primary School.

Our mascots Brodie and Gillespie playing in the snow at Our Lady and St Francis Primary School.

A special ‘Thank you’ to Lochrutton and Boghall Primary Schools who sent us some lovely letters showing the excellent work pupils have done following on from their session on the bus. See example work below in our ‘Top Tweets’. We’ve also started a new Twitter quiz on Fridays, where we ask you to identify a close-up of a native species. Keep an eye out for #fridayfocus @WildaboutScot.

Bus driver DaveFrom the driver’s seat….

Each month our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus driver David gives you a wee insight into what it’s like to drive our double decker the length and breadth of Scotland.

Hail, rain, wind and snow have made January an interesting month of driving. Twice during our Fife week the Forth Road Bridge was closed to high-sided vehicles, meaning a 30 mile detour via Kincardine Bridge. On a number of occasions, snow has started halfway through the morning lessons, so when it came time to leave the playgrounds were whiteouts. But after some careful driving in snowy conditions, the school gates were successfully negotiated.

Whether due to visibility, rain-soaked spectacles or maybe the hope of the Wild about Scotland bus being their ticket home, I am increasingly being flagged down by prospective bus passengers! The large pictures of animals, lack of seats and a service number not being a clue, they are disappointed when I stop to inform them of their mistake.

As well as driving the bus, I have become responsible for taking many of the photos you see on Twitter and in local papers. So one big plus in January was an afternoon training from the Big Partnership on how to take a professional photograph suitable for use by the press. A very informative and interesting session. Thank you Laura and Neil.

BrodieKnowsBest#Brodie knows best

Each month Brodie the bus mascot answers your questions about science and nature.

Q. Why are beavers’ teeth orange?

A. The hard orange enamel on the outside of beavers’ incisors is in contrast to the soft dentin on the inside of the teeth. Like all rodents, the incisors continue to grow throughout their lifetime. So when a beaver gnaws on wood or bark this softer inner layer wears away faster than the harder outer layer. This creates a chiselled finish, keeping our teeth nice and sharp!

Submit your questions for next month on Twitter @WildaboutScot using #Brodieknowsbest

Top teacher comments and tweets

“Great interactive activities that had the children engaged from beginning to end”, Kelty Primary School

“Really enjoyable and definitely worth a visit. Very informative and great staff. Will recommend”, Strathallan Primary School

“All the hands on activities, especially the dam building, really captured the imagination and attention of the children”, Crookfur Primary School

“Come more often!” Sunnyside Primary School

Next month- February

Next month, as well as visiting schools across Edinburgh, Dundee, Perth and Kinross, Angus, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire, we have some special events planned! On Wednesday 4th February, we will be open to the public at our local aquarium Deep Sea World in North Queensferry. Also, as part of Scottish Environment Week we will be welcoming MSPs on board at Holyrood on Thursday 19th February.

For more information about the Wild about Scotland project and to see when the bus is next in your area, visit our website at, follow us on Twitter @WildaboutScot, or like our Facebook page.

Chief Executive’s Blog

February 6, 2015 § Leave a comment


GentooPenguinChick_12Well February is here and with it lots of cold bright sunshine. Each year in February our colony of gentoo penguins at Edinburgh Zoo begin their breeding season. Funnily enough, and an amusing coincidence of nature, it is round about February 14th that nest rings and pebbles go into Penguins Rock. The birds will increasingly start to show behaviours associated with breeding – calling, sitting in the nests, selecting a mate, pebble giving (and some stealing!). It is also entertaining to watch and, as we often say, there is never a dull moment in Penguins Rock at this time of year.

Still on the subject of birds, Edinburgh Zoo recently added a very threatened species to our bird collection. The Baer’s pochard is a diving duck which is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List. These birds can remain submerged for up to 40 seconds and dive a distance of two metres deep looking for food. They are a new species for Edinburgh Zoo and our bird keepers are pleased to have them in our collection. The birds are currently on display in our flamingo enclosure which is near to the entrance of the Zoo. Other feathered editions include three rainbow lorikeets that are currently off show.

At Highland Wildlife Park, we have just received approval from the Indian Central Zoo Authority to send them another two female satyr tragopans for their conservation programme in Darjeeling. One bird hatched in the Highlands in 2014 and another is from a World Pheasant Association member. A rare and endangered bird species, the programme is an attempt to kick-start a recovery plan for the species.

Satyr_Tragopan_1_JPIn 2013 nine tragopans, bred in captivity in the UK and donated by the World Pheasant Association’s conservation project, were sent to the foothills of the Himalayas. It was these birds that were provided special quarantine facilities at Highland Wildlife Park prior to their departure because very specialist skills and resources were required.

RZSS is also very proud to be arranging the reintroduction of European Bison again this year in two possible locations (Vanatori Neamt in Romania again and a new site in northern Spain which is at the south-western edge of the species’ historical range). This will be another great step taken to help re-establish these majestic animals after they became extinct in the wild in 1927. Last year we reintroduced a female European bison from Highland Wildlife Park to an established herd in Romania.

This week takes our WildGenes team to Thailand where swabs are being collected from elephants in the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort as part of a pilot project DNA registration system for Thailand’s captive elephants. While there our team will also provide training in the use of 40 new camera traps that are being funded by WWF USA, as well as DNA sample collection to help aid our project to survey and protect biodiversity in Burma.

Finally, RZSS’ veterinary team is hosting the natterjack sub-group this week to contribute to disease screening.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” — Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Chief Executive’s Blog

January 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Well welcome back to my blog as we start to move further into 2015; here at RZSS we are extremely excited about developments that lie ahead.

The new Edinburgh Zoo dinosaur exhibit will arrive in early April until the end of October and will see 14 life-size, animatronic models taking over the top of the hill. This is a great opportunity to engage children and adults alike with the key conservation messages of RZSS, whilst raising awareness of extinction and the threat it poses to many of the animals in our collection. Many of the departments across the Zoo are working hard to deliver this amazing experience for our visitors, from our gardens team who are choosing the fantastic flora and fauna to create the dinosaurs ‘habitat’, to our discovery and learning team who are developing educational materials to tie in with the exhibition.


Dinosaur plant shopping

Early 2015 will also see the arrival of a female polar bear at Highland Wildlife Park. Her large enclosure has been completed and is ready to house the new arrival. This will be a very significant move and will, we hope, help towards securing the future of this species, which is threatened by habitat destruction and global warming. If she settles quickly into her new home, introductions to one of the polar bear males may happen as early as April. It is still incredible to think that we may even have polar bear cubs as early as December at Highland Wildlife Park. The last polar bear cub born in the UK was 23 years ago.


Walker and Arktos by Jan Morse

Highland Wildlife Park also is likely to get a new male European grey wolf this year and a new female wolverine. The snow leopard enclosure that we announced towards at the end of last year is likely to be completed by early summer, with a male and female arriving from the European breeding programme before this date. In addition we have high hopes for a new pair of European beavers we established at the Park last year, with kits perhaps being born as early as May.


Xale, male wolverine by Alex Riddell

In terms of conservation science, WildGenes our RZSS genetics laboratory is carrying out trial runs on a new wildcat hybridisation test this week in preparation for testing wildcats at the Park as part of the captive breeding programme. Over in South East Asia, our team has met with the Malaysian Wildlife Department to discuss a workshop on illegal wildlife training. Also, our conservation genetics team and one of our veterinary surgeons met up in Hanoi, Vietnam, to visit a captive tiger sanctuary with the aim of tagging (eartags, transponder, stripe pattern and DNA) the tigers as a pilot project; this is with a view to tagging all captive tigers in Vietnam, and hopefully later Lao, to prevent them entering the illegal trade.

Finally, although much of Scotland might be under snow, our latest update from our Latin American researcher, Arnaud Desbiez, who is out in the Brazilian Pantanal undertaking field work, is that they are having a productive, but VERY HOT field expedition. Temperatures are at record highs and most of the time they do not have electricity – which makes things a little difficult!

Arnaud’s team recently caught up with a new female giant armadillo, as well as the two juvenile armadillos they are monitoring (Roberta and Alex). To read more about our work on armadillo species in the Pantanal, please do read this article on BBC Earth online

I have to end on a sad note and express our sorrow to hear of the passing of Mrs Margaret Peggie at the end of last year. Mrs Peggie and her late husband were instrumental in helping RZSS to save Mercedes the polar bear from being shot in her native Canada and in bringing her all the way to her new home at Edinburgh Zoo. Longtime supporters and Patrons of RZSS, we are extremely grateful for all the Peggies have done over the many years and offer our condolences to her family and friends.

“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain”

– William James

Going Wild about Scotland through December

January 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Brodie and Gillespie build a ‘Hailman!’

Brodie and Gillespie build a ‘Hailman!’

Whilst Edinburgh was battered with snow showers back in early December, the Wild about Scotland team were fighting against strong winds and hail (enough even for Brodie and Gillespie to build a ‘Hailman’). A storm had set in over Scotland, but fortunately we have heating on the bus so we were still cosy. December saw the team keep fairly close to home, just in case the winter weather took a turn for the worst.

Our bus managed to visit Clydesdale Bank branch in Irvine.

Our bus managed to visit Clydesdale Bank branch in Irvine.

We visited Perth & Kinross, West Lothian, East Dunbartonshire, all over Ayrshire and close by Edinburgh. In that time we visited 11 schools and even managed to squeeze in a photograph at a Clydesdale Bank branch in Irvine. So far we have visited 53 schools in 17 local authorities and taught 1,918 pupils!

Crime scene task in our Wildcat lesson - ‘Who done it?’

Crime scene task in our Wildcat lesson – ‘Who done it?’

Beaver and Scottish Wildcat lessons continued throughout the month and further developed the investigation and observation skills of the pupils coming aboard. A particular highlight for the pupils of St. Winnings Primary School in North Ayrshire was the workshop designed to get the pupils thinking about persecution of Scottish Wildcats. The station is set up as a crime scene and allows the pupils to look through evidence to work out which animal stole and ate chickens from a fictional farm in the Cairngorms. A teacher wrote ‘…all the pupils were actively engaged and loved the group tasks – particularly the crime scene task.’

Brodie Knows Best!

BrodieKnowsBestBrodie the toy beaver is the bus mascot and helps children learn all about beavers and their habitat

Beaver lodges are very different from dams. Dams are built to block flowing water and flood areas so the beavers can move around safely in water. Lodges on the other hand are used as a safe shelter and have at least two chambers, which include areas for feeding and sleeping.

From the Driver’s Seat….

Bus driver DaveEach month our ‘Wild about Scotland’ bus driver David gives you a wee insight into what it’s like to drive our double decker the length and breadth of Scotland.

When I was made aware of my successful application for the Wild about Scotland bus driver back in August I decided to do a little research into the origins of our double decker, as I am a huge bus enthusiast. I found out that the bus was bought new by Stagecoach in 1996 and ended its working life in 2014 at their Kilmarnock garage painted in designated school bus colours. To my delight we were to spend a week in the Kilmarnock area during December and were allowed to park the bus in the Stagecoach garage where our bus was based.

Our bus meets its sisters in Kilmarnock before a day on the road

Our bus meets its sisters in Kilmarnock before a day on the road

I have taken some photographs of our bus parked next to its sisters still in their school livery (note the registration numbers as they run in sequence) as 5 were bought and delivered to Stagecoach on the same day in 1996. Our bus is now having Kilmarnock pupils on board for lessons who could have travelled to school on it last year. All the local Stagecoach drivers acknowledged their old bus with a hearty wave every time we passed by.

Top Teacher Comments and Tweets

Hands on approach/interactive session engaged children.’ Abernethy Primary

‘Children were able to achieve success—Suitable for abilities of all children.’ Boghall Primary

‘The quality of the discussion was to a high standard’ St Winnings Primary

‘Pupils were using active learning strategies. They were engaged through investigation from start to finish.’ Shortlees Primary.


Next Month – January

First up for 2015 are Edinburgh, Fife, East Renfrewshire, West Lothian, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire so keep your eyes peeled for Brodie in a town near you!

RZSS Residencies Blog – Kathy Sorley, Thinker in Residence

January 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

It has been some 20 months since I stepped into this challenging new role on behalf of the Society, tasked with thinking ‘outside the box,’ and with developing creative initiatives and fostering connections to stimulate new visitors and supporters to Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park.

Making acquaintances over Christmas!

Making acquaintances over Christmas!

One of the most exciting recent developments has been the ‘soft’ launch of RZSS’ Residencies Programme on 27 November. Within such a multi-faceted organisation there are lots of fascinating opportunities to collaborate with specialists in a wide variety of different fields, to great mutual benefit.

For the Residents this presents a prestigious opportunity to expand their portfolios working within the unique environment of RZSS, whilst in return the Society gains invaluable access to specialist knowledge, expertise and creativity. Broadly speaking, the Residencies will come under the categories of Thinking, Creating, Doing. Chris West, Jeremy Peat and I meet regularly to review possibilities and approve the appointments.

As the initial Resident, responsible for managing this Programme, I thought I would take the opportunity to use this first blog to provide a bit of background. Although my great grandfather hailed from Edinburgh, I started life in Washington DC, then moved to the UK after undergraduate studies at Duke University and a business degree at Yale. I stayed 12 years in London before moving up to Scotland nearly 20 years ago. I love the highlands and the islands especially, and I have never looked back. Prior to joining the RZSS team I spent 20 years in the film industry as a screenwriter and independent producer, having formerly run my own communications firm in Covent Garden.


The Harvest Moon Fold in Dumfriesshire

Animals have been a passion of mine ever since I can remember. Apparently I fell in love with a zebra soft toy in Texas at age three, rescued an injured rabbit in Philadelphia at four, welcomed my first dog Sparkle in New York at six, and have since raised several dogs and cats, hundreds of Indian runner ducks and chickens, and a small fold of Highland coos called the Harvest Moon Fold down in Dumfriesshire, some of whom now reside on the Pentlands just opposite the Zoo. I often look out onto those hills on blustery zoo days like today and wonder where they might be grazing … thankfully they’ve got the perfect coats!

I was also fortunate to enjoy my first photographic safari adventure to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1970, and have spent considerable time in East and South Africa over the years since, so the passion extends to all wildlife.

As your Thinker in Residence I devote considerable energy getting to know our animals, and our team who take such good care of them at EZ and HWP – looking through the eyes of our visitors – as well as developing an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.

That is my greatest joy. And it is the opportunity for those close connections to our animals and the team that allow me to think creatively, to spark imaginative ideas in keeping with senior management and board objectives, and to attract new friends and supporters for all of us.

So, a big thank you to everyone who has welcomed me into your terrain thus far, and joined me in this journey we share growing our Society into the 21st century. And a most hearty welcome to newcomers who have recently come on board. I look forward to exploring those areas where our visions and our energies might naturally dovetail.

Just to give you a taste of some early TIR initiatives which I will profile in future blogs:

  • RZSS Archives
  • Edinburgh Zoo Centenary Gala Dinner
  • Meerkat Plaza Ambassador
  • Tribal Elders Lecture Series
  • Edinburgh College of Art Initiatives
  • EZ Big 5 and HWP Curators’ Tours
  • Roar and Snore
  • Developing RZSS and the Arts Collaborations
  • New Supporters
Sculptor in Residence - John Ramsay

Sculptor in Residence – John Ramsay

Back to the Residencies Programme, each month I will profile one of our new Residencies in this blog, and you will be kept up to date about Residency events through our various social media outlets.

Examples of Residents recently named include:

  • Sculptor in Residence – John Ramsay
  • Beekeeper in Residence – Brian Pool
  • Art Restorer in Residence – Kenneth Brien
  • Silversmith/Metalworker in Residence – Bryony Knox

Thursday 15 April will be the official RZSS Residencies Launch at Mansion House, featuring more than a dozen Residents and examples of their work with the Society.

I look forward to profiling our very own Sculptor in Residence, John Ramsay, in my next blog!

Until next time.


RZSS Thinker in Residence

My beloved Bella!

My beloved Bella!

Chief Executive’s Blog

December 19, 2014 § Leave a comment


Things have been very festive week at both Highland Wildlife Park and Edinburgh Zoo this week.

HWP_MuskOxBOEUFF_CreditJanMorseAt the Park, Boeuf, the six month old muskox, was surprised with special festive enrichment – papier-mâché Christmas puddings. First of all, I must say a big thank you to the staff and volunteers who spent hours building up papier-mâché balls, then painting them to such a high standard. Boeuf and his parents, dad Myse and mum Karin, kicked and head butted the enrichment about the enclosure and Myse appeared to take great pleasure in completely destroying the pudding. It is wonderful to see the family together as Boeuf is a real success story for the Park. Muskox are notoriously difficult to breed due to high neonatal mortality rates and a low tolerance to parasites. Wet weather can also make calves in particular susceptible to pneumonia.

Christmas also arrived early for giant panda Tian Tian who received a panda cake in the shape of a Christmas tree and topped with a carrot star. Panda cake is a firm favourite with both Tian Tian and Yang Guang and is a special nutritional supplement they receive daily as part of their regular diet. Keepers placed the cake on her climbing frame (in an area she wouldn’t usually receive food) as an added enrichment for her. Tian Tian wandered and sniffed about the enclosure before finally finding the cake. She climbed up beside it and gently lifted the star from the top before eating the whole cake. You can watch it all here:

There was more excitement at the Giant Panda Experience this week as it was announced that Edinburgh Zoo has been nominated for two prizes at the Giant Panda Zoo Awards 2014. Yang Guang has been nominated for “Favourite Panda Outside of China” and one of his keepers, Michael Livingstone, has been nominated for the “Panda Keeper of the Year” award. Panda fans and experts from around the world are invited to vote for their favourites at:

Wild About Scotland Bus

Wild About Scotland Bus

To round up the week and truly symbolise the start of the Christmas holidays, the specially designed ‘Wild about Scotland’ educational bus has just finished its first term on the road. Since its launch at St Paul’s Primary School, Whiteinch on 29 August, the bus has travelled 2377 miles to visit 53 primary schools, and welcomed on-board a massive 1,918 eager to learn pupils! The interactive classroom has been developed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and brought to life by a partnership with Clydesdale Bank.

As I sign off for 2014, I wish you all the very best of wishes for the festive season and the new year ahead.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together

~ Vincent Van Gogh


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31,791 other followers