Oct 24
Goblins, Ghouls and Great Apes: Helping Save a Species this Halloween

While haunting Halloween fun, costumes and trick-or-treating become a focus for many children this time of year, a truly frightening future faces orangutans in the wild. Halloween provides the perfect time to talk about how a simple piece of candy can affect a species nearly 10,000 miles away. How you might ask? A single ingredient contained in that candy: palm oil.

Habitat destruction and conversion for agriculture, most often palm oil plantations, are the primary causes of diminishing wild orangutan populations. As one of the most endangered of the great apes, the time to save orangutans from extinction is growing very short. 

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil taken from the pulp of fruits grown on oil palms. Grown on both large-scale plantations and small-scale family farms, nearly 85 percent of the world's palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, the only remaining habitat for wild orangutans.

Palm oil is used in 50 percent of manufactured food and other products we buy, not just candy. It can be found in a wide range of products like margarine, chocolate, ice cream, soaps, cosmetics, fuel for cars and power plants and many more.

The issue for orangutans occurs when forest habitat is destroyed for illegal plantations, targeted for its rich, moist growing area.

How Can You Help?

The Indianapolis Zoo is committed to encouraging our members, guests and zoos across the nation to become more involved in responsibility addressing this crisis. The most conscientious choice individuals can make in the palm oil crisis is to support responsible and sustainable palm oil production.

Because the palm oil market is economically vital for the people of Borneo and Sumatra, for a solution to work it must benefit not only orangutans but people as well. As a consumer, you can do your part by supporting companies that are working toward using 100 percent sustainable palm oil.

Mobile apps have even been launched to help people make responsible decisions when purchasing products and to recognize companies that are doing well or that need improvement. A new app, created by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, was designed to encourage sustainable choices when shopping for groceries or personal care products — something you can easily use when buying sweet treats this holiday season!

Learn more about palm oil, orangutan conservation and how your consumer choices can help the effort here.

Oct 01
The Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center: Taking an Orangutan Exhibit to New Heights

For guests young or old, whether you're an orangutan expert or an individual encountering these apes for the first time, the Indianapolis Zoo's Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center has created awe-inspiring moments since its opening in May. Offering an unparalleled experience for visitors and orangutans alike, it's an exhibit in which the apes are thriving.

When the Center was designed, the Indianapolis Zoo's team had a goal — to make the space functional for orangutans, creating everything from the apes' point of view. The Zoo collaborated with some of the world's most qualified architects and orangutan researchers, including foremost great ape expert Dr. Rob Shumaker, who is now the Zoo's Vice President of Conservation and Life Sciences.

What they created is an internationally recognized exhibit like none other — an innovative facility that accommodates orangutans' arboreal lifestyle, engages their remarkable intelligence and supports their unique social structure.

"This is truly innovative, especially for a primate that needs control and independence over their social choices," said Dr. Rafaella Commintante, a professor at California State University who has studied orangutans in the wild and recently visited the Zoo to discuss orangutan conservation.

Features of the Center

According to Shumaker, the Center incorporates interesting and functional three-dimensional spaces both indoors and out so the orangutans can move around on all levels and choose where they want to go. Whether guests see the apes outside traveling or within the interior areas, it's because the orangutans, by their own accord, chose to be there.

Orangutans travel daily on the Myrta Pulliam Hutan Trail, and it's hard to predict exactly where every individual will be throughout the day. That's exactly what researchers hoped for when designing the layout of the buildings, outdoor yards, towers, platforms, cables and bridges. The apes are enjoying many new social choices, and the other orangutans they spend time with changes from day to day — sometimes even hour to hour. That creates an exciting and dynamic environment that's wonderful for the apes, keepers and visitors alike.

Both in the wild and in zoos, orangutans are natural learners and problem solvers, and they need ways to exercise their minds. The orangutans respond eagerly and voluntarily engage with tasks during daily sessions in the Tim M. Solso Learning Studio, and repeat visitors have even been impressed by the progress the orangutans have made this summer!

A Functional Forest

Since the Center opened, hundreds of thousands of people have visited and had lots of interesting questions.

One of the most common is, "Can orangutans be happy without trees?" It's certainly a fair question. Orangutan bodies are uniquely adapted for climbing and moving through a complex, vertical environment. They also need enough space to travel and make social choices. While all of this occurs for wild orangutans living in a forest, it's also happening at the Center.

The Center's design promotes natural locomotion for the apes, and is seen on a continuous basis. Those same behaviors wouldn't occur if the exhibit was full of artificial trees, while newly planted trees would not have been able to safely support the constant use of orangutans in the Center. The orangutans regularly make social choices and travel around the entire complex, resulting in more activity and healthy exercise.

The key question from the point of view of the apes is not whether the space looks like a forest, but does it function in a way that allows their natural behaviors? The answer is a resounding "Yes!"

We agree with our colleague Dr. Steve Ross, ape expert and Director of the Fisher Center at the Lincoln Park Zoo, when he says that "Understanding the behavioral needs of apes is tremendously important in a zoo setting. Creating environments that let them express their most normal behaviors promotes physical and psychological health."

The results are clear: All of our orangutans are active, healthy, engaged intellectually and making choices that enrich their lives every day.

Sep 22
A Worldwide Effort to Save One of Earth's Largest Mammals

Rhino3-Scott Olmstead.jpg​They're among the world's oldest species of mammal. Rhinoceros and their ancestors have been around for nearly 55 million years and, at one time or another, nearly 100 different species of these incredible creatures have roamed the planet. Now, only five species remain — white, black, greater one-horned, Javan and Sumatran — and three of those are critically endangered.

Though wild rhinos face a difficult plight, the challenge can be overcome. Conservationists are coming together worldwide as part of a huge effort to save these giant creatures, and even small contributions to help raise awareness can make a big difference.

World Rhino Day is celebrated every Sept. 22, and the purpose is to share the knowledge of these awesome animals to help spark people's interest in wanting to save them. The Indianapolis Zoo, home to three white rhinos, is proud to recognize this day as part of an overall effort to save this remarkable species.

The word rhinoceros comes from two Greek words: rhino, meaning "nose", and ceros, meaning "horn". And that horn is actually what has made these beautiful beasts a target for hunters. Just a century ago, more than a half million rhinos wandered the continents of Africa and Asia. Today, their numbers have been reduced to less than 30,000 in the wild.

A distant relative to horses and zebras, rhinos are among the largest living animals — the white rhino is the largest after the elephant. But their size isn't enough to keep them safe from poachers.

According to the International Rhino Foundation's Operation Stop Poaching Now campaign, about 1,000 rhinos were killed in 2013. Through Sept. 1 of this year, a staggering 769 rhinos had been poached — roughly one rhino every eight hours!

Rhino5 Gloria-Don Reynolds Imaging.jpgAt the heart of this crisis are differences in cultural beliefs. Many Asian cultures erroneously believe that rhino horn holds special healing properties. People use ground horn in hot tea and other serums to treat all sorts of ailments, from colds and flu, to headaches and arthritis, to snakebites and countless others. Some myths even say the horn is an aphrodisiac.

In reality, rhino horn is made of keratin, the same material found in human hair and fingernails. And it's been scientifically proven to be no more effective at treating ailments as chewing your own nails or hair.

Conservationists are finding it difficult to overcome centuries of cultural tradition — difficult, but not impossible.

Thanks to the diligent efforts of conservation groups like the International Rhino Foundation, which the Indianapolis Zoo supports, some rhino populations are actually increasing.

Two decades ago, the number of black rhinos in the wild had dropped to just 2,300. But intensive anti-poaching efforts have helped these amazing mammals rebound to about 5,000. The greater one-horned rhino has come back from even more dire straits. After their population dipped to less than 200 in the mid-20th century, they now number around 3,300 in the wild.

White rhinos have been one of the biggest success stories for rhino conservationists. Twenty years ago, only about 6,400 of these creatures survived in the wild. Now, with around 20,000 roaming the African savannahs, there are more white rhinos left in the wild than all other species combined. However, like all rhino species, white rhinos still face significant threats.

The key to saving these magnificent animals is education, and everyone can help through simple actions like spreading the word and supporting rhino conservation efforts.

Plains Senior Keeper Amber Berndt and Public Relations Specialist Carla Knapp contributed to this blog.

Aug 19
AZA’s Palm Oil Statement Brings Focus to Orangutan Conservation

As the Zoo celebrates World Orangutan Day, guests, staff and the community are reminded of the similarities between humans and these great apes. But it's important to also remember the role we play in orangutans being here for generations to come. With habitat destruction and conversion for agriculture a serious threat for endangered orangutans in the wild, they are on track to become the first great ape to go extinct.

 A crisis exists for these sentient beings and their conservation, but efforts by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums may be a step in the right direction.

The Board of Directors approved a position statement that will guide efforts to address palm oil messaging with visitors and ensure a journey towards deforestation-free palm oil by AZA-accredited institutions.

Dr. Rob Shumaker, the Indianapolis Zoo's Vice President of Conservation and Life Sciences, assisted on the Palm Oil Task Force that created the document. The task force will continue its work to support AZA accredited groups that are committed to changing palm oil's effect on the ecosystem.

The position states "the AZA recognizes that unsustainable palm oil production results in massive deforestation, rapid biodiversity loss in tropical ecosystems and significant greenhouse gas emissions. Global consumption of palm oil and its derivatives is increasing, requiring strong conservation action to save species. By facilitating change through audience and stakeholder engagement, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are well positioned to help break the link between palm oil production and deforestation."

The Indianapolis Zoo, which is accredited through the AZA, supports endangered species including orangutans through global involvement and financial support. Through hard work these organizations, researchers and scientists in the field are helping to preserve unique animals and their habitats for future generations.

The ecological impact for the Zoo's newest exhibit spreads far beyond Indianapolis. The Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center's purpose is to help people understand and appreciate orangutans, and therefore actively support orangutan conservation.

The Zoo supports the Orangutan Kutai Project in the Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, Borneo. The project started in 2009 to protect the seriously endangered orangutan population and recover the critical habitat that has been largely destroyed.

The Indonesian reforestation initiative grows, plants and cares for these trees in areas where the forest has been depleted. Within the Center guests have the opportunity to make this reforestation project a success by making donations to plant trees through interactive features of the exhibit.

Learn more about conservation initiatives the Indianapolis Zoo supports here.

Aug 08
Going Out on a Limb to Feed Animals

Elephant browse.jpgLeaves, twigs and branches — for humans, that’s a great mix for garden mulch, but for elephants, it’s a favorite snack!

African elephants are the world’s largest herbivores and feeding their cravings can be a big chore, especially when an elephant, which weighs several tons, will eat about 1.5 percent of its body weight every single day!

At the Indianapolis Zoo, our elephants regularly receive leaves and branches that our Horticulturists have trimmed from trees and shrubs around our 64-acre campus. Feeding out this edible greenery, called browse, is both economically and environmentally friendly — the ultimate in going green.

Browse makes up only a small portion of the elephants’ daily diet, yet elephants aren’t the only animals that receive browse for food. So our Horticulture staff is still challenged to provide enough browse to satisfy our animals’ appetite.

Moving branches.jpgRecently, the Zoo branched out and started a partnership with the Indianapolis Museum of Art to collect browse from the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. Their 100 wooded acres provides a virtual all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of leafy limbs for Zoo animals. Plus, offering their landscape clippings as browse is an eco-friendly way for the IMA to keep their campus looking beautiful.

Starting small, our Horticulturists recently cut two young mulberry trees from the back of the nature park that our Plains staff fed to the elephants later that day. Browse are a form of nutrition as well as enrichment for the animals, as it encourages them to forage for food just as they would in the wild. Nyah, the youngest of the elephants in our herd, also enjoyed playfully flipping her food around with her trunk.

Nyah browse.jpgAnd snack time didn’t last long on this particular afternoon, as the elephants quickly ate every last tasty splinter.

Waste not, want not!

Aug 07
Making the Best of Your Zoo Visit

When you're thinking about visiting the Indianapolis Zoo, it's easy to get swept up with excitement at all the epic adventures just waiting for you inside our front gate! As a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden all in one attraction, the Zoo offers so much to see and do. Plus it's a unique experience every time you visit. But before you jump in your car, we're giving guests amazing ways to save money, and it all starts by planning ahead. Here's five hits to help you have a phenomenal and affordable Zoo visit!

  1. It's all up to you: A great way to save time and money is by taking advantage of the new Pick Your Day, Pick Your Price, Pick Your Package program, which allows guests to plan a visit that fits their schedule and their budget. With this new online ticket program, prices vary daily based on many factors, including that day's projected attendance. In general, we expect lighter crowds during the week, and by planning your visit on those days, not only will you save money, you'll also find shorter lines and enjoy more personal interactions with our animals. Plus, by planning ahead and purchasing tickets in advance online, guests can lock in the lowest price. Prices will never fall below today's listed prices, but they may increase the longer you wait to buy. The further in advance you purchase tickets, the more you can save.

  2. Become a member: If you visit the Zoo more than twice a year, the most cost-effective option is a Zoo membership and there are multiple packages available t​o accommodate everyone. In addition to 12 months of unlimited Zoo visits, members receive other great benefits like free parking, discounts throughout the Zoo, early admission to the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center on weekends through Labor Day as part of the Wake Up With the Orangutans program and more.

  3. Have an adventure: The Zoo's Family Fun Adventure Package is a popular option for out-of-town guests. Explore the city of Indianapolis with four Zoo tickets, four tickets to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis and an overnight stay at a participating hotel — all for an affordable rate. The Zoo also partners with dozens of area hotels to offer discount admission tickets with an overnight stay.

  4. Enjoy amazing shows & chats: General Zoo admission includes more than you might think! Experience upbeat dolphin shows daily at the Marsh Dolphin Theate​r or head to Dean's Arena for the high-energy JUMP! The Ultimate Dog Show. Plus, you can learn more about our incredible creatures from the zookeepers who care for them during daily keeper chats. You won't want to miss any of it!

  5. Stop and smell the roses. The Zoo's 64 acres are wonderful, but make sure to visit White River Gardens, too! This beautiful 3-acre botanical garden is located right next to the Zoo's front gate and is included w​ith regular admission. Now through Sept. 2 you'll also find hundreds of beautiful butterflies at Butterfly Kaleidoscope inside the Hilbert Conservatory. Escape the stresses of the city and immerse yourself in this stunning natural oasis.

Now that you know all of the secrets for having an epic Zoo adventure, what are you waiting for? Start planning your next visit today! We look forward to seeing you soon!

Jul 31
Experience a Day in the Life of a Zookeeper with Zooper Challenge!

​​Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a zookeeper? Maybe you were inspired during a recent visit to a zoo. Perhaps you've thought about going into profession involving animals. Maybe you're just looking for a career that's different than the normal 9-to-5 office job — that's great too!

Now, guests at the Indianapolis Zoo have the opportunity to experience a day in the life of a zookeeper with Zooper Challenge!

This summer the Zoo created an all-inclusive experience for visitors called the Total Adventure Package​. Included in this deal are unlimited rides and animal feeds as well as exclusive access to a virtual game called Zooper Challenge. This innovative new feature allows players to step into the role of zookeeper. Keeper Kim will be your guide throughout Zooper Challenge, asking you questions and giving you tons of fun animal facts!

Here's how it works.

  1. Purchase the Total Adventure Package​. TAP is available at the front gate or, if you're in to saving time (and who isn't), you can buy it in advance online.​​


  2. Put on your orange wristband. Either wrist is fine. Just make sure you don't cover the TAP logo on the wristband. It won't scan as well if you do.

  3. Start at a keeper kiosk. There are six located all around the Zoo. All of the kiosks are marked on the Zoo map so they aren't hard to find. Look for a big orange canopy with three screens underneath and you've found them. Then, listen to Kim's instructions and type your name.

  4. Find your first animal station. Hold the TAP logo on your wristband to the matching logo on the station. It's important to hold, not swipe, the wristband. It might take a few seconds to register, so be patient, it's worth the wait! You'll be rewarded with exciting behind-the-scenes information.

  5. Listen to Kim. Our helpful guide will ask you a question about the specific animals you're learning about. To discover the answer, just watch our incredible critters on exhibit and then find the nearby animal station to continue.

  6. Answer the question. Look for another keeper kiosk where you will answer Kim's question. Once you've found one, hold your wristband to the symbol again to choose from the multiple choice answers.

  7. Repeat steps 4-6 and become an animal expert! The longer you play, the more you'll learn and the higher you'll ascend in the game. You might even work your way to head keeper with the help of Kim and the knowledge you gain from each exhibit!

  8. Get rewarded for your Zoo smarts! Whether you decide to answer questions at one or all 14 animal stations, when you've finished your adventure, head to the gift shop at the front of the Zoo to receive your reward.

Interacting with Keeper Kim and learning about caring for animals may be the nudge you need! If this game sparks curiosity some sort of career at a zoo or aquarium, make sure to check out some tips from the American Association of Zookeepers.

​Are you ready for the challenge? Visit the Indianapolis Zoo and see if you have what it takes. Who knows— you might just find the zookeeper in you!

Jul 23
Wild Things Are Their Everything: The Zoo Celebrates Staff for National Zookeeper Week

When guests walk under the Indianapolis Zoo marquee, they step into a world of adventure. Exotic and inspiring animals make people of all ages wonder about the world just a little more.

But caring for all of our animals is no small task. It takes the dedication and expertise of our remarkable zookeepers to provide care and comfort to our herds, pods and flocks each and every day.

In honor of National Zookeeper Week, July 20-26, we want to send a special thanks to our keepers, in all departments, for being a part of the Indianapolis Zoo team.  Their character, commitment, expertise and effort have helped establish us as a world-class zoo.

“Our Life Sciences staff – our zookeepers – are a remarkable group with a unique combination of skills, experience and a deep personal commitment,” said Mike Crowther, Indianapolis Zoo president and CEO. “We are very fortunate to have them on our team.”

But to be a part of this team it takes not only passion but extensive knowledge about the animals in our collection as well.

Education is a vital requirement of the keepers’ job here at the Zoo. Each of our full-time keepers has an undergraduate degree, most commonly with a major in biology, zoology or psychology. Several individuals on staff continued their education even further to complete master’s and doctorate degrees.

“Our zookeepers are scientists with extraordinary dedication to the well-being of the individual animals they care for,” Crowther said.

Some grew up around animals, like Encounters keeper Eric Garrison, who said his involvement with his family’s farm at an early age helped set him on the path to becoming a zookeeper. Others on staff were inspired by shows and zoo experiences they had during their childhood.

But what does it take to begin the career path to keeper?

The best advice Deserts Area Manager John Wyatt had to offer was to concentrate on pursuing a related degree and working to get your foot in the door, whether through volunteering or internships.

“It’s a very competitive field so it can be tough, but I would tell people to not give up, keep trying. It will happen,” Wyatt said.

“Internships are really key, or just volunteering is a great way to start,” said Encounters keeper Meagan Keen. “Indianapolis is great because of the Zoo teen program, so you can start in high school to start gaining that experience.”

Dana Lambert, an Encounters keeper, feels now more than ever children have helpful tools if they’re interested in this career path.

“Just start studying, find out the things that you think are interesting and look into volunteering. We’re going to need more and more good zookeepers in the future,” Lambert said. “It’s always going to be a job that we need to fill and we want to have good, dedicated and patient people going into that. There are lots of opportunities for growth in the field.”

Crowther believes it takes a very special person to be a zookeeper.

“They are highly educated and trained of course, but they’ve also come out on top during a rigorous selection process. Those who become part of our team are the best of the best,” he said.

The Indianapolis Zoo currently employs more than 100 individuals whose job relates to animal care, including keepers and veterinary staff, with additional help from volunteers.

 “It takes a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it,” said Oceans aquarist Holly Kennedy. “I come to work each day loving my job.”

To find out more information about working in zoos, aquariums or other places studying animal behavior, visit the careers page of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums website.

Guests are encouraged to meet and interact with these inspiring individuals during daily keeper chats. Make sure to thank our keepers if you see them on grounds while you’re at the Zoo!

Jun 24
Students’ Project Orange Increases Conservation Education

Mrs. Beth Leffler, an 8th grade teacher at Carmel Middle School, invited the Indianapolis Zoo to be part of Project Orange, a community awareness project focused on orangutans. She used project based learning as a way to engage her students with a real life problem: orangutan endangerment and conservation efforts.

Over the course of three weeks the students researched these apes, orangutan conservation and the palm oil crisis. Through their research, they came up with a number of ways to increase the awareness of this issue in their community. They created videos, posters and books, along with flyers and pamphlets to share.

A number of students even decided to raise money for conservation initiatives through fundraisers during their school lunch period. They sold orange wristbands and chocolate bars that were donated from Endangered Species Chocolate – raising approximately $700 for orangutan conservation.

At their Community Presentation Day on May 23, they did more than simply “Wear Orange for Orangutans.” The students donated the money raised to the Indianapolis Zoo to support the Kutai Reforestation Project in Borneo.

A big thank you to these students for doing more than just learning about these endangered apes, but for taking action and helping spread the Indianapolis Zoo’s mission – empowering people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.

Jun 18
Indianapolis Zoo Researcher's New Study Proves Chimpanzees Outperform Humans in Game Theory Tests

Think you are smarter than a chimpanzee? Think again. A new study by Indianapolis Zoo researcher Dr. Christopher Flynn Martin, published in the online journal Scientific Reports, has revealed that chimpanzees outperform humans in tests involving game theory.

Lead author Dr. Martin, working with co-authors at the California Institute of Technology, documented that chimpanzees at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute reached predictions for optimal play.

The Inspection Game

During the study, pairs of chimpanzees in the Kyoto research facility played thousands of rounds of a hide-and-seek scenario called "The Inspection Game," over inter-connected touchscreens. A small apple cube was dispensed to the winner on each round.

To play the game, pairs of chimpanzees sat facing away from each other while situated at interconnected touch-panel stations. On each round, the players chose one of two boxes that appeared on the left and right sides of their respective touch-panels. One of the players,  designated the "hider",  won by choosing the box on the opposite side to the one chosen by  her partner, while the other player, the "seeker", won when both players chose the box on the same side.  Over repeated rounds, the game tested the abilities of players to predict the behavior of their opponent, and to themselves evade prediction. 

Game Theory and the Equilibrium

For games such as this one, theorists have determined that there is optimal strategy that can be utilized to nullify one's opponent's chances of gaining an edge. This strategy is known as the Nash Equilibrium, named after the Nobel Prize–winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. , whose life was the subject of the film "A Beautiful Mind." The chimpanzees were shown to perform in line with the Nash Equilibrium by creating sophisticated patterns of choices that matched the theoretical benchmark. In contrast, human participants that played the same game as the chimpanzees did not play in the same optimal way according to game theory.

What might explain such a result?  "Chimpanzee cognition, compared to humans, may be more finely tuned toward competitive reasoning due to their dominance-mediated social environment," Dr. Martin said. "Dominance quarrels occur regularly within chimpanzee groups, and these routine agonistic encounters may turn them into expert tacticians with an intuitive sense of game theory."

The Impact at the Indianapolis Zoo

This important research impacts our overall understanding of great ape mental abilities, and provides exciting opportunities for studies with orangutans at the Indianapolis Zoo's Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. Dr. Martin conducts research at the Center, which is equipped with a shared touch-panel system that follows the method he developed in Japan.

The system at the Zoo will accommodate interactions between visitors and orangutans over this shared touch-panel software, creating an immersive educational opportunity for the public and advancing the Center's goal of orangutan conservation.

Dr. Martin's research interests include great ape social cognition, communication, imitation and strategic reasoning. He earned his MSc and PhD in Biology at the Kyoto University Primate Research Center in Japan, and joined the Indianapolis Zoo in March 2014.

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