Aug 08
Learning About, Caring for and Protecting Walrus

By Erika Allen
Senior Marine Mammal Trainer

As a Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at the Indianapolis Zoo, caring for our marine mammals and working toward conservation of their wild habitats are some of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Mentored by my fellow Senior Trainer, Lisa Oland, I've developed a passion for working with and protecting walrus. My experiences working around these highly intelligent and charismatic animals have inspired me to put my heart into their wellbeing and protection. Together, Lisa and I have worked with the Zoo's Marine Mammal Training team to enhance the lives of our walrus through creative enrichment and innovative research training. Our passion and dedication to these animals has created a desire to work with facilities and organizations from around the world to collaborate with a mission of learning about, and protecting walrus.  

Back in early May, Lisa and I were able to do just that in Anchorage, Alaska. This opportunity came through the Zoo's involvement with the Walrus Conservation Consortium, a group of top walrus professionals from around the world who meet annually to discuss walrus care, management, research, and conservation.

In addition to learning about new ways to advance walrus care, we shared our experiences with our two Pacific walrus, Aurora and Pakak​. The information the Zoo's staff has gained from years of working with walrus has enabled us to contribute important welfare and research data to the global walrus and scientific communities.

During the workshop, we also had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as well as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This collaboration on research projects and conservation funding will hopefully lead to a better understanding of Pacific walrus and their habitats, as well as increased conservation efforts.

You can support one such fundraising effort at the Zoo by participating in our "round up" program in the gift shop. Guests will be given the opportunity to round their total purchase cost up to the nearest dollar, with the difference being donated to the Alaska SeaLife Center to be used on walrus-specific research and rehabilitation.

Next time you visit the zoo, don't forget to stop by and say hello to Pakak and Aurora and learn about your impact on the arctic environment and how you can join the zoo in helping to protect this amazing species!

Aug 04
Baby Orangutans Mila and Max are Great Playmates

The Indianapolis Zoo's two tiniest orangutans, 1-year-olds Mila and Max, are growing fast. And since they were recently introduced to one another, they're also forming a great friendship as they play and explore together.

The Zoo celebrated its first-ever orangutan birth when Mila was born on March 23, 2016, to mom Sirih and dad Basan. While Mila stayed close by her mother's side for the first few months, it didn't take long for the curious youngster to begin exploring on her own. Zookeeper Stacie Beckett said Mila is an incredibly independent and fearless ape. She's also picking up many of Basan's mannerisms — like somersaulting, putting her feet on the mesh and using the ground to scratch her back.

Max and his mother, Kim, came to the Zoo in the fall of 2016 and moved into the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center a few months later. While Max was delayed developmentally when he first arrived, he has made spectacular progress with the support of our expert animal care team. Recently, Max has started eating more solid foods — bananas seem to be a favorite. Like Mila, Max is very curious and playful. He is becoming more independent and enjoys climbing and crawling everywhere. He also spends lots of time playing with big sheets of paper, plastic buckets and cardboard boxes.

Designed from the orangutans' point of view, the Center encourages all the apes' incredible abilities and allows them to climb, swing and move in a very natural way.​ And Max and Mila have both explored every inch of their dynamic space — from the bottom up to the top and even outside!

Beckett said Mila and Max were a little hesitant upon first meeting each other, but they've warmed up to each other and are now great playmates. They often chase each other, roll around and wrestle together. The babies also seek out Sirih, "Auntie" Knobi and other adult females to join in the fun.

As you watch the two young apes play together, you can tell them apart by their hair — Max has darker hair that sticks up on both sides while Mila has lighter locks.

Having two orangutans who are so close in age is wonderful, Beckett said. Like human siblings, Max and Mila have lots of energy, and playtime doesn't have to end when the adults need a break.

Since female orangutan go seven to nine years in between pregnancies, it's also very unique to see 1-year-olds together the way Mila and Max are at the Center.

Aug 02
A Home for Wildlife

By Nina Evans

The White River Gardens is a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat garden. You can do this in your own yard, too. To be certified you need to be able to provide all the necessities of life for wild animals. The things that must be present are food (nectar, seeds, nuts, fruit, berries, foliage, pollen and insect food), water (for drinking, bathing and breeding ), cover (places to shelter and hide), and places to raise young. Recently the NWF has added "Sustainable Practices" to their list of requirements.  Those are soil and water conservation, controlling exotic species and organic practices. Because of our large collection of plants, our numerous water features (especially in the Gardens), and the responsible treatment of our landscape, the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens are home to many different wild animal species, and are good places for others to visit!

So what might you see on your next trip here? 

Hello Birdie!

Birds​ love us! Even this juvenile hawk thought the Gardens was a nice place to hang out for a couple of days a while back.

Caterpillars Become Butterflies​

You might just notice a caterpillar like this one, which will become a black swallowtail butterfly. You'll certainly see some of the many types of butterflies and moths that frequent our gardens!

We Welcome Bees

There are so many different bees, wasps and hornets moving pollen from one plant to another or feeding on other insects that eat our plants. Catmint ('White Cloud') is one of many plants that attracts pollinators.​​ 

Garden Helpers 

Thought by some to be frightening, there are lots of creatures that will help you out in your garden, such as spiders, some small native snakes, and other "bad bug" eaters like praying mantises and cicada killers. 

Four Legged Foragers

Rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels may do more eating of plants than we like, but their antics are delightful to watch. Usually well hidden from view are the raccoons, and the occasional groundhog, fox, or muskrat that may live here.

Water Lovers

Our w​​ater features in the White River Gardens have been around long enough that native pond species have found their way here, especially dragonflies, frogs, and a turtle or two. 

Jul 24
A Celebration of Salvias!

By Nina Evans

Chances are you have used salvias in your garden or have admired them in a planting of your neighbor's, at a public garden, or in the wild. Beauty, utility, variety, toughness and a propensity to attract hummingbirds make them wonderful to use as ornamentals in the cultivated planting. A few species are most commonly sold as annuals for our Indiana gardens, especially Salvia splendens (called scarlet sage, though its pointy-petaled flowers come in all sorts of colors!) and Salvia farinacea (called mealycup sage- think of 'Victoria blue'). And there are many staples as perennials for us, like S. nemorosa ('Ostfreisland' or East Friesland, and 'Caradonna', among others), and S. officinalis (the edible sage). But most of us are barely brushing the surface of gorgeous salvias we can be using!

We are celebrating the summer with a plethora of non-hardy salvias in the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden. Each of the four beds there have a different color scheme of three salvias, all of them accompanied by foxtail asparagus fern (Asparagus deniflorus 'Myersii') and white lantana (Lantana camara 'Landmark white'). Salvia spendens does make an appearance in several colors and heights, but there are also a few you may not be familiar with. Take it from me, it was very hard to filter the choices down to just these 12!

Our Celebration of Salvias

Bed one (closest to the spitting frogs water feature)

Salvia farinacea 'Evolution' — A more compact plant than 'Victoria blue' (14-20 inches tall) with lots of stalks of small, violet–colored flowers.

Salvia guaranitica (anise-scented sage) 'Black and Bloom' — Touted as an improvement over 'Black and Blue' because of its earlier bloom and larger flowers, it can get over 3 feet tall in the right conditions.

Salvia greggii (autumn sage) 'Wild Thing' — Native to Texas and northern Mexico, this bushy plant around 2 feet tall has vivid hot pink flowers.

Bed two

Salvia 'Dancing Flame' — A 2- to 3-foot-tall plant of some uncertain origin, it boasts vibrant red flowers over dark green a and gold variegated leaves.

Salvia splendens 'Vista lavender' — A unique lavender flower color on plants up to a foot tall.

Salvia  splendens 'Lighthouse purple' — Two-toned darker purple flowers on a plant that can get up to 3 feet tall!

Bed three

Salvia splendens 'Red Flame' — Another tall salvia with vibrant red flowers.

Salvia splendens 'Vista Red and White' — The short one in this bed, it has unusual red and white striped flowers.

Salvia elegans (pineapple sage)'Golden Delicious' — A yellow-leaved version of the later-blooming pineapple sage, look for it to grow close to 3 feet tall.

Bed four (closest to the bench)

Salvia splendens 'Vista Salmon'— Another of that shorter Vista series, it has unusual salmon colored flowers.

Salvia 'Balsalmisp' (Mystic Spires Blue) — This lovely creation is the result of a cross between Salvia  longispicata  and S. farinacea, sporting purple-blue flower stalks on plants that get to be a good 3 feet tall.

Salvia coccinea (Hummingbird sage) 'Coral Nymph'- A medium-height plant with delicate salmon and pink flowers.

Behind the bench

Salvia miniata (Belize sage) — Its shiny olive-green leaves and luminous red-orange flowers make this salvia one of this gardener's favorites!

Jun 26
A Garden of Exploration and Fun!


By Nina Evans

When your family enters the White River Gardens, you will encounter a place where play, discovery and imagination are all around! Your adventure begins in the Hilbert Conservatory where butterflies drift in the air around you, unusual blooms grab your attention and lush planting create the feeling that you have entered a tropical jungle. You can even hear the sounds of hidden insects chirping away!

Walk outside and the child among (and in!) you will feel invited to play with the Gardens' many water features. The carved boulder-like fountains in the Knot Garden trickle with water you and the birds will find hard to resist. Water splashes noisily at the head of the stream in the Sun Garden, culminating in a tranquil pool where you are likely to spot a goldfish, frog, or even a snapping turtle!  And in the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden you'll encounter a stone table with a tantalizing watery tablecloth, a bronze heron doing the backstroke, and relaxing frog sculptures that "spit" arching streams of water into a rocky pool.

There is much to discover in the Polly Horton Hix Design Gardens. In the Sunken Garden you step down into a patchwork grid of planting beds filled with herbs that are asking to be touched and smelled. As you wander about, keep your eyes open for the tortoise and the hare, two of the many whimsical bronze creatures found all throughout the Gardens. New this year are a garden showing tips for gardening in small spaces (City Garden), another demonstrating ways you can keep some of your big plants smaller (Pruning Garden), and a bed full of plants that were used by our area's Native Americans (Cultural Garden). 

Explore the Sun Garden to find plants of all shapes and sizes. Birds, bees and butterflies can be spotted all around, as providing food and egg laying plants for pollinators in very important for all of us! And the adventurous can cross the stream over large stepping stones that appear to be floating on the water!

From the excitement of creating your own giant sand art in the Indianapolis Zoo Guild Heritage Garden to the restful coolness of the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden, you and your children can share together in the unique experience that is the White River Gardens!

Jun 22
Painting with a Purpose

How can a field trip create a future for endangered species? Give a little paint to a very special group of students, like the third graders of River Birch Elementary in Avon, and that's exactly how.

What began as an overnight field trip to the Indianapolis Zoo in April became a commitment to conservation in the classroom. Inspired by many of the animals' stories, the students began asking how they could help protect wild things and wild places.

With the school year's end fast approaching the students decided to take action. They read books about conservation, learning more about deforestation, water supply and renewable and non-renewable energy. Many began keeping a close eye on ingredients in their cafeteria snacks, doing their best to avoid palm oil after learning about the plight of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra.

To help animals directly, the classes came together to create paintings, raising funds for the species the Zoo cares for here in Indianapolis and far beyond. Their efforts raised more than $350!

 "Although we planned to study conservation when we returned from the Zoo, we never thought it would go this far," said teacher Jennifer Miner. "A few weeks into our study we knew this unit was going to be a great opportunity to lead our kids into taking a critical stance about something they cared about."

The Zoo is proud to see dedicated young conservationists playing their part!  ​

May 23
Greening Up

​By Jeff Hansen
Horticulture Department

When visiting the Indianapolis Zoo, there is a lot to see around the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. As you ride the Skyline or watch the orangutans climb their trail, have you ever taken a glance at what is on top of the iconic structure? It is probably one of the less noticed gems of the Zoo. As part of its original "green" design, two green roofs totaling approximately 6,400 square feet make up the majority of the roof structure of the SSIOC. Also known as a living roof, a green roof is comprised of plant life that is planted in a lightweight substrate chosen for its good drainage and its ability to be supported by the building. Drainage is key, for if water were retained by the substrate it would create a much larger weight load on the building. Beneath the substrate is a waterproofing membrane that ensures water runs off the building instead of inside.

Plants chosen for green roofs have to meet certain requirements. They need to be drought tolerant, love sunlight, have good cold hardiness and wind tolerance, and it's always nice if they are attractive to the eye. A very common plant chosen for this purpose is sedum, and our green roofs are no exception. Twelve varieties of sedum make up our planting, including Sedum sexangulare, Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce,' and Sedum spurium 'Red Carpet.' Sedum meets all the criteria that are necessary to thrive in the green roof setting and makes it an ideal plant to use. Plus, there are so many species and cultivars of sedum that it gives a lot of room for creativity in designing the green roof landscape.

Scientific studies have shown that green roofs have a significant impact on climate control energy costs of the building they are installed on. One study showed that there can be as much as a 25% reduction in heating costs in the winter, as well as a 25% reduction in cooling costs in the summer due to reflection of solar radiation. Transpiration by plants in green roof systems contributes greatly to this, which is the process of water molecules being released from the plant. This creates a cooling effect for the plants as well as the building in summer.  In sedum, this transpiration process will occur when moisture levels are high enough, but during periods of drought sedum plants will conserve their water and not allow for transpiration to occur during the daytime. This is what makes them such drought tolerant plants and ideal candidates for green roof systems.

Another major green aspect of the International Orangutan Center green roofs deals with water. When precipitation occurs, the sedum take up water, but most of the rain water ends up running off the building because of the well-draining substrate. This water is then collected into massive 10,000 gallon underground storage tanks. In fact, most of the storm drains immediately around the Orangutan Center direct rain water to these cisterns. This water is then used in the landscape irrigation system to water the surrounding plant life, essentially acting as a massive rain barrel.

The next time you visit the Zoo and are watching Rocky or Basan climb around their impressive home, take a moment to also appreciate the green roofs. Their impact on the Indianapolis Zoo is much bigger than most people know. ​​

Apr 19
Planting Under the Bicentennial Pavilion

By Nina Evans

If you've been to the Indianapolis Zoo recently, or even have just driven by on West Washington Street, you've almost certainly seen the giant, umbrella-like structures that have been under construction throughout the winter.  This is the new Bicentennial Pavilion, covering 40,000 square feet, which is nearing completion and will be open this summer! Each of the "trees" is made up of a rusted steel-beam tower that soars upward 20 to 26 feet, topped by a 45-foot-wide roof of pale southern pine wood. Their overlapping roofs form a huge, covered area over up to three event spaces, an enormous stone fire place, the Magnificent Macaws demonstration area and lots of landscape beds.

You might wonder how we are going to have plants growing under there.  The secret is that every tower has  transparent acrylic panels and an opening in the very center.  Think of it as a forest with a very high treetop canopy that allows light and water to filter through to the plants below.  And those "forest floor" plants are all species that do well in the partial shade. In fact, many of them are native species you will find growing in or along our Indiana woodlands.

At the bases of the "tree trunks" are moisture-loving plants suitable for rain gardens. This is because of the natural rain water that will come dancing down the beautiful filigreed metal work inside the tower structures. And in the ground under the beds are large water-retaining infiltration systems that will hold the excess water temporarily, letting it seep slowly into the surrounding soil.

So what plants make up this woodland landscape? Flowering perennials such as bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana 'Blue Ice'), Lenten rose (Helleborus 'Royal Heritage') and dwarf Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium 'Baby Joe') will provide blooms throughout the spring and summer. The narrow leaves and showy flower stems of shade tolerant forbs like tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cestitosa 'Schottland') and variegated palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis 'Oehme') will stir in the breeze. And look for the giant fertile fronds of Ostrich fern (Matteuchia  struthloperis 'The King') that start out as "fiddleheads"  in the spring. They may get a little tattered as the summer goes by, but the shorter, more feathery sterile fronds will look lovely all season.

Trees and shrubs are represented in the landscape as well.  Yellowwood (Cladrastris kentuckea) with its light grey bark, water-loving black gum (Nyssa sylvatica 'Wildfire') and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) with its leaves of three different shapes will be scattered throughout the beds. Under these you will see a dwarf form of a native hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'Hayes sunburst') and winged sumac (Rhus copallina 'Creel's Quintet'), sporting showy flowers in the summer.

As beautiful as our Bicentennial Pavilion plantings will look this summer, they will be breath-taking in the spring! Then the ground will be covered with huge masses of early spring blooms. The lovely flowers of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and other woodland wildflowers will be something you will want to see year after year!

Apr 12
The Special Way Zookeepers Care for Ray

Trainers make unique accommodations to work with a blind sea lion​

When guests get a glimpse of Ray, one of five California sea lions here at the Indianapolis Zoo, it's easily apparent that this magnificent marine mammal has a story to tell. As the scars on his face indicate, it's a story filled with struggles, but it has a happy ending! He's also become an ambassador for the quality care we provide animals here at the Zoo.

Ray was twice rescued and rehabilitated following multiple gunshot attacks along the coasts of California. The second attack in 2012, which left shotgun pellets lodged in his head and body, significantly damaged Ray's eyesight. His right eye was so seriously injured that it had to be surgically removed while his left eye had only limited vision.

After treatment, his rescuers decided he would no longer be able to survive in the wild, and in August 2012, the Indianapolis Zoo stepped in to provide Ray a safe, new home.

Despite Ray's limited vision, he adjusted well to his surroundings and soon after his arrival, Ray had become a central — and very vocal — part of the Zoo's colony.

Given his limitations, Zookeepers observed Ray closely, and as time went on, they noticed changes in his behavior. During training sessions, the sea lion worked increasingly close to his keepers. He also began bumping into objects and appearing confused at times as he moved around the exhibit. A follow-up exam by the Zoo's veterinary staff as well as an ophthalmologist confirmed Ray had gone blind in his left eye.

For animals in the wild, a total loss of vision would be disastrous, but here at the Zoo, Ray has adapted well with the assistance of our expert animal care staff.

Before losing his sight, Ray had already learned all the twists and turns of our fixed environment, so he's still able to maneuver by memory through our exhibit. He does, however, stick to certain patterns for swimming and put his whiskers out to avoid bumping into other animals or objects.

And since they first started working with Ray, keepers have modified some of their training methods to better accommodate his disability. For example, when they noticed Ray having difficulties responding to their direction, they adjusted and started getting down on his level. Now Ray will touch them with his whiskers to have a better idea of what is going on around him. Keepers also use verbal and physical cues, instead of visual cues, to better allow Ray to respond.

Like all animals at the Zoo, Ray also receives regular check-ups with veterinarians. Trainers regularly work with Ray, providing gentle touches to help him get used to any medical procedures he would need.

Despite the challenges, keepers say Ray remains a calm and personable sea lion. Though he does display frustrations at times when he gets turned around in the exhibit, he responds very positively to keepers and his love for rubdowns hasn't changed.

With the help of our expert care staff, Ray will have a bright future here. He greets guests with his signature bark as they enter the Zoo.

Mar 14
New in the Gardens!

Nina L. Evans

After you commune with the butterflies in the Hilbert Conservatory, be sure to go outside to the Polly Horton Hix Design Garden. It is made up of 12 smaller garden beds, each demonstrating a different design theme or principle to provide you with ideas for your own yard.  Some of these are classics and have remained the same since the White River Gardens opened in 1999, like the Sunken Garden and the Whimsy Garden, while others have changed over the years to help keep your creative juices flowing. This spring will see three new themed gardens there that you are sure to inspire you and increase your gardening know-how.

If you're like me, you have some large herbaceous perennials that grow too tall or floppy, or you aren't sure when you should cut them back after blooming for the best looking plants over the rest of the summer. The Pruning Garden will arm you with the knowledge to deal with some of these trouble makers. There are so many perennials that can be cut back some during  the season to create a shorter plant with only a bit of delay in the bloom time, encourage a nicer looking second bloom, or discourage blooming and encourage leaf growth. The garden will have multiples of the same plants, some pruned and some left to grow naturally, so you can see the difference for yourself.

The City Garden is going to be our version of an urban garden showing you ways to grow edibles and their ornamental companions in a small space. You'll not see long, straight rows of veggies isolated from each other here! Rather, look for a single seed potato producing potatoes like crazy in a barrel, food plants growing vertically to save space, re-used materials for structures and containers, and a fruit producing fig tree that can live through our winters. A rain barrel and a composting bin, complete with a potting bench, will make this garden one that is good for your family and the environment!

Last but not least will be the Cultural Garden. It will contain plants that grow in different areas of the world and will be changed out every few years. The inaugural planting will showcase plants used by Native Americans, primarily before Europeans came to our area of the country. It will feature a medicine wheel with four sections. In each these will be plants used for one of four different functions: ceremonial, medicinal, daily living and edible. We have done our research and searched hard for appropriate plants so that you will see those used specifically by the native peoples of Indiana and surrounding states. Some of the plants are mostly considered to be weeds now, but others are regular inhabitants of our gardens today.

One more stop you'll want to make is the Family Nature Center. There you'll find detailed information about the plants and techniques of these three remarkable gardens you can use at home.

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