Chief Executive’s Blog

September 5, 2014 § Leave a comment


As some of you may know, I spent an earlier portion of my career at Chester Zoo. It was refreshing and entertaining to watch a history I am so familiar with being loosely retold in the new BBC drama Our Zoo. In keeping with the theme of zoo enclosure history, I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you a little bit more about the history of the enclosures here at Edinburgh Zoo.

Edinburgh Zoo opened in 1913 by founder and respected Edinburgh lawyer, Thomas Gillespie who had a passion for animals. Almost unheard of in the day of Victorian menageries with bars and cages, Gillespie’s design for the Zoo had been inspired by Hamburg’s ‘open zoo’ by Carl Hagenbeck. Edinburgh Zoo was then created with large open enclosures, using ditches and moats to separate the animals from the visitors – this new approach was revolutionary for its day and nothing of the like had been seen in the UK before. I believe Chester and Whipsnade, in 1931, were the first non-urban zoos with larger enclosures in country surroundings.

We continue to constantly re-evaluate and adapt our animal enclosure to ensure they cater for the animal’s needs. Our most recent enclosure redesign, Meerkat Plaza, opened earlier this year. It has the same enrichment opportunities as their previous enclosure, yet is more reflective of their natural habitat and is a wonderful greeting point at the entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. Some other exciting developments have been Penguins Rock, the panda enclosure and the Budongo Trail. Over the past 101 years, Edinburgh Zoo has evolved into the more modern site it is today, yet hints of its Victorian character are still visible. I trust many more exciting developments and enclosure redesigns will take place as the Zoo continues to mature.

Searching for a giant armadillo

Searching for a giant armadillo

As almost a continuation of the previous blog, I would like to highlight some recent work of Arnaud Desbiez, RZSS Latin America Coordinator stationed in the Pantanal in Brazil. I have spoken before in my blog of his work on the Giant Armadillo Project.

During an August expedition, Arnaud and his core team were joined by veterinarian trainee Henrique Guimarães Riva and the Curator of Zoological Operations at Busch Gardens Tampa, Rob Yordi. They were also joined by extra special guest Gaia, a young female Belgian shepherd dog, and her trainer Mariana Faria Correa. Gaia was taking part in a pilot study of dog detections of giant armadillos to help us locate members of the elusive species. She had been preparing for her first expedition since April; this involved training that familiarised the dog with the scents of the Pantanal, for example sand upon which an animal had urinated.

Mariana and Gaia

Mariana and Gaia

Work started slowly with Gaia as she had been trained to find scents, not occupied burrows, and had a little bit of difficulty distinguishing between fresh and old scents. Gaia would react to scents sometimes 50 meters from the burrow and then expected a reward; however Mariana would patiently have her find the burrow before rewarding her with a play session. Gaia made a lot of progress during the expedition and every day got better and better as she began to understand what was expected from her. Gaia also had to learn how to walk in this new environment and how to recognise giant armadillo signs. The learning curve was steep, but great progress made.​

After a few days of training, Arnaud, Rob and Mariana went to look for Don (a male giant armadillo) to help train Gaia. On the way to find Don, a familiar character who could be relied upon to help train Gaia, the team stumbled upon a fresh feeding burrow around one kilometre away from his burrow. This scent was given to Gaia to see if she could take the lead and find Don. She rose to the challenge and swiftly picked up the scent, but went off in the opposite direction to Don’s location. The team followed as Gaia walked from one murundum island to another – islands of cerrado vegetation with a termite mound in the middle that are found in the scrub grasslands. The team came to an old burrow and to their surprise; right behind it was a beautiful fresh sand mound and a freshly dug occupied burrow! All in all, a very promising experience with Gaia.

And finally, you have probably seen the news that giant panda Tian Tian is now past her due date and the scientific evidence suggests that this may be bad news. She is still displaying some of the behaviours of a pregnant panda, but the scientific data from the urine analysis of her hormones is becoming more atypical. We hope to be able to update you further, either way, next week.

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos. 

Edward O. Wilson

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