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April 2, 2013 Calgary Zoo

New Calgary Zoo Member Meets Marmots and Whoopers

Only a 45-minute drive from the zoo, the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city – and with good reason. Here, peace and quiet are critical ingredients for successfully breeding endangered species for reintroduction into the wild.

Exploring the Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre

Tires crunch in the snow as new Calgary Zoo member Sandra Hinz pulls around the corner and rolls to a stop at the gate of the zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre (DWCC) on a bright and chilly January afternoon. “I’ve lived in Alberta almost half my life and must have driven past the turnoff dozens of times. I had no idea what was tucked away around the corner.”

She’s not alone. It’s unlikely that most visitors to the zoo will ever see the DWCC – invitations to visit the conservation breeding facility are a rare privilege extended to zoo members just once a year. Only a 45-minute drive from the zoo, it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city – and with good reason. Here, peace and quiet are critical ingredients for successfully breeding endangered species for reintroduction into the wild.

“I’ve learned so much today and am thrilled to have had this experience.”

As zookeeper Rick Wenman and zoo researcher Kelly Boyle walked Sandra through the DWCC, the vistas were breathtaking – snow-covered fields, frost-tipped trees and an icy pond. Equally breathtaking, Sandra would soon discover, is the work that happens in this little corner of the world.

Sleepy Marmots Save Their Species

The first stop on Sandra’s tour was a visit with some very sleepy Vancouver Island marmots about halfway through their seven-month hibernation. In 2000, when the species’ numbers dropped to a critical low in the wild, the zoo was one of the first facilities to start breeding these marmots. Since then, more than 100 pups have been born at the DWCC and most have been reintroduced into the wild, some of them released personally by Rick. “It’s just incredible to see marmots that we raised here at the zoo surviving in the wild and having pups of their own,” he says.

Stepping inside the marmot building didn’t offer much of a break from the cold; the building is kept at a constant -7°C to provide optimum conditions for the marmots’ winter nap. After walking through a disinfectant footbath and donning a lab coat, Sandra and Rick quietly enter marmot territory and get ready for the monthly marmot weigh-in.

They emerged from the winter denning area with Harrison, a male marmot who was hibernating so soundly he could have easily been mistaken for a stuffed animal. Using a hand-held scanner, Rick read the marmot’s microchip to confirm it was Harrison, and then Sandra helped him weigh one of Canada’s most endangered species.

“Harrison is so beautiful. He tugged at my heartstrings and brought tears to my eyes along with a total sense of peacefulness. It was truly a very emotional moment,” says Sandra. “It’s incredible to think that I was given this opportunity to experience the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre first hand and be able to touch a sleeping Vancouver Island marmot. Thank goodness for the Calgary Zoo and the work they are doing out here, otherwise Harrison and his other Vancouver Island marmot friends wouldn’t have a chance of survival.”

Harrison, now paired with Pippi, a female marmot who hasn’t successfully bred, has an important job to do. “We mix up the pairs to make sure there is as much genetic diversity as possible in the population,” explains Rick.

“Harrison fathered pups with one of our older females, Mirabelle, who died last year at 14. Now he’s partnered with Pippi who is one of our most genetically-valuable marmots because she hasn’t had pups yet.”

Once the weights were recorded and the marmots were tucked safely back in their nest boxes, the group headed back outdoors. Over the squeaking and crunching of their boots, they were greeted by the distinctive calls of the zoo’s ten breeding pairs of whooping cranes.

Up Close With Whooping Cranes

Twenty whooping cranes might not sound like a lot, but the number represents almost five per cent of the current world population of these endangered birds. As the whoopers continued calling in the background, Rick explained how in the 1940s the wild population reached a critical low of only 15 birds. Increasing the numbers to close to 400 whooping cranes in the wild today has been a slow and difficult process.

“Each egg and bird are so valuable,” explains Rick. “There is an incredible amount of work that goes into making sure whooping cranes continue to live in the wild.” The intricacies of going from whooping crane egg to migrating bird seem endless and the road to reintroduction is complicated.

“We use conservation tools like artificial insemination, incubators and dummy eggs to make sure that every single whooping crane egg has the best chance of hatching and the chick surviving to adulthood,” explains Rick.

That means using technology and calling on the zoo’s researchers to help provide scientific analysis of ways to improve hatching success.

Each spring, about a week before the zoo’s whooping crane eggs hatch, they are whisked off by plane to one of the other breeding facilities in the US, all partners with the International Crane Foundation working to save these magnificent birds. A zookeeper accompanies the precious cargo – sometimes just one egg and other times as many as six – carrying them in a custom-made duffel bag equipped with its own incubator and power source.

“It’s just amazing how much work goes into raising a single chick,” says Sandra. “I’ve learned so much today and am thrilled to have had this experience.”

As the group walked back up the road toward the DWCC’s entrance, Sandra added “Today I feel like a tiny little speck in Mother Nature’s world, but I’m thinking about what I can do to make a difference. I really feel that education is key and I’d like to personally support the zoo’s work any way I possibly can. There is so much we can learn from nature if we are aware and pay attention.”

As published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.

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