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.

Mar 09
Turning Up the Heat

​Burning Brings New Growth for the Zoo's Spring Plants

When it comes to spring cleaning at the Indianapolis Zoo, a few flames might be involved.​

In early spring, the Zoo's Horticulture team works alongside our friends from The Nature Conservancy to take part in a controlled burn. This burn removes large patches of primarily ornamental grasses throughout the Zoo to clear the way for new growth.

Why burn?

The benefits of burning include the removal of unwanted plant species that threaten those native to an area, and provide an improved quality of food and habitat for wildlife while recycling nutrients back to the soil. The burns also promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants and control insect pests and plant diseases.

Controlled — also known as prescribed — burns are very carefully planned under specific environmental circumstances. In addition to acquiring permits, areas are selected in a thoughtful, skilled manner to ensure the safety of both staff and animals. Humidity, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, temperature, rainfall, air mass stability and topography are all considered before proceeding on the selected day. Plus, the conditions must be favorable for the smoke to rise and dissipate quickly.

This spring, as you pass paths with burned areas make sure to pause for a closer look — you'll likely see tiny new green growth! 

Mar 08
Meet the Caretakers of Our Critters: Amber Berndt

​Amber Berndt has a passion for rhinos. Her dedication to these magnificent mammals goes beyond the workday; Amber is key to the success of the annual the Bowling for Rhinos event.

Tell me more about your involvement in Bowling for Rhinos.

Bowling for Rhinos is a national American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) event; I'm our local chapter's Bowling for Rhinos chair. This annual, family-friendly event includes bowling, pizza and a silent auction, all to raise money for rhinoceros conservation in the wild and increase awareness of the poaching crisis. I personally was 10th in the nation for most money raised for AAZK's rhinoceros conservation last year. This year we doubled our amount from 2015, so I'm hoping to rank higher than 10th!

What is it about this species that inspires you to go above and beyond?

I have worked with the Indianapolis Zoo's white rhinos for 11 years and cherish the bond I have with each of them. They are very social and like to interact with their keepers.  Because of my passion for rhinos, I am a member of the International Rhino Keepers Association and attend bi-annual workshops to enhance my rhinoceros knowledge. I also love to educate guests about the five species of rhino, share some of my stories, and explain how they can help contribute to saving rhinos because they need our help in the wild.

What can Zoo members do to get involved in rhino conservation?​

I want to encourage members to take a look at our local AAZK's website and Facebook page and follow all of our events including Bowling for Rhinos. There are links for them to donate if they cannot attend.  For more on the poaching crisis, the International Rhino Foundation is a great way to stay up to date; they are on the front lines of this devastating issue.

Feb 20
Why Is the Zoo More Than Just a Zoo? 

By Nina Evans

​There is no question that the White River Gardens, which opened in the spring of 1999, is a beautiful botanical garden. When you visit, you'll see hundreds of plants of all shapes, sizes and colors packed into more than 3 acres containing 25 different garden areas. It should come as no surprise that White River Gardens is officially certified as a botanical garden by a national organization, in our case the American Alliance of Museums.​​

​What might be news ​to you is that the Zoo was accredited by AAM as a botanical garden in 1996 — three years before the Gardens existed! What's that all about?

AAM began in 1906 to bring museums together, "helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community."

As time went by, it expanded its membership and accreditation programs to also include zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens. And the Indianapolis Zoo became the first to be recognized as all three!

When the Zoo moved in 1988 to our current spot in White River State Park, it grew to five times the size of its old location in George Washington Park on East 30th Street! A landscape plan was created for the large amount of non-exhibit space, then the Horticulture Department of the new Zoo took over. Plants as well as animals became part of the Zoo's collections, with both having their own detailed record-keeping system. ​

In addition to receiving accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the new Zoo also sought accreditation from AAM, which required demonstrating excellence in 38 characteristics under seven categories, such as mission and planning, collections stewardship, and education and interpretation. After submitting a huge questionnaire, the Zoo hosted the AAM's visiting committee for an on-site review. Finally, the accreditation commission goes over all the collected information and makes its decision. After going through the extensive process in 1996, the Zoo's certification as a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden was achieved. It is renewed every 10 years to demonstrate our continuing commitment to excellence.

So when the White River Gardens opened in 1999, it was already a part of an accredited botanical garden. The plant collection increased and became even more diverse, managed by an expanded Horticulture Department. You have probably spotted Horticulture staff working hard in the landscape throughout the Zoo and Gardens. We are dedicated to providing you and our animals the best experience possible. Be sure to ask us about our plants on your next visit!

Jan 24
Meet the Caretakers of our Critters: Trent Rowlett

​Zoo trainer enjoys highlighting the ways guests can help dolphins

When guests attend a dolphin presentation at the Indianapolis Zoo, they are quickly introduced to one of the dolphins and learn that animal's individual story.

For Trainer Trent Rowlett, that's the highlight of each presentation because it offers visitors an opportunity to connect individually with these magnificent marine mammals then inspires those visitors to help save dolphins in the wild.

"I don't want guests to leave the Zoo saying, 'I saw a dolphin today,' I want them to leave and say, 'I saw China today and this is her story,'" said Rowlett. "Each animal has a story. (In the presentation), you get to know the animals on an individual basis and you learn why we should save them in the wild."

Rowlett first started working at the Zoo 13 years ago as a Zoo Teen, an opportunity that inspired him at a young age to pursue a career as a dolphin trainer. After joining the animal care staff four years ago, he is now a marine mammal and carnivore trainer. In addition to working with dolphins, he also works with the walrus, tigers and many other species in the Zoo's Oceans and Forests areas, forming a special bond with individual animals in each of those areas.

Of all the different roles he's had over the years, he said his favorite has been helping guests connect with conservation to better understand how their lives can impact wild dolphins. 

"The new dolphin presentation speaks to the Zoo's mission," Rowlett said. "To me, it says that I have something to give to the environment – that everyone can make an impact, even in a land-locked state."

The all-new presentation highlights the Zoo's partnership with The Nature Conservancy to help dolphins in the wild. With the help of the Zoo's trainers and dolphins, as well as stunning video filmed on location in the Gulf of Mexico, patrons learn the story of wild dolphins and how their lives are connected through Indiana's waterways.

Rowlett, who grew up in Central Indiana, said many Zoo visitors discover their connection to the Gulf for the first time when they see the presentation.

"I think the majority of people who come to the Zoo are surprised that the things they do every day have an impact locally and globally," he said. "Your daily routine has an impact on animal conservation. Even Indiana farmers are now thinking about how they impact dolphins in the wild."

Jan 17
The Farm in the Zoo’s Backyard

​By Nina Evans

Do you know that the White River Gardens has an agrarian theme? Once you start to look, you'll discover references to farm life both inside and out. Look at the shapes of the building: the Bud Schaefer Rotunda looks like a grain silo; the Hulman Riverhouse mimics a riverfront warehouse; the Hilbert Conservatory is shaped like a huge Indiana barn. And the wonderful 360-degree mural in the Rotunda, called Midwest Panorama, strikingly depicts Indiana's four seasons of farm life.

Venture outside into the DeHaan Tiergarten​ on a nice winter day to find other nods to Indiana's agricultural heritage. On the main walkway through the Allen W. Clowes Water Garden, you'll find a big chunk of Bedford limestone carved like an old millstone once used to grind wheat or corn into flour. You'll see the Gardens' whimsical version of wind mills in the tall Vining Mills wood and metal sculptures beside the water gardens steps, and the skeleton of a grain silo masquerading as a gazebo on one end. The walls of the Ornamental Allee harbor the outline of a split rail fence, if you can get your eyes to see the pattern of the inset bricks in the walls rather than at those that stick out – an optical illusion, for sure!

The White River Gardens "farm" doesn't stand alone, however. Surrounding the lush fields of edible and ornamental plants (in the summer, that is) are the wilder lands: the stylized prairie of the Virginia Fairbanks Sun Gardens and the woodland retreat of the Ruth Lilly Shade Garden.

​​When you stroll the winding walkway of the Sun Garden, you'll still notice signs of a long-gone farm in the curved stone foundations of old silos all along your path, as well as a tall stone cistern just before you emerge at the edge of the little farm pond. The Shade Garden is like many wooded areas left untilled by farmers, with trails cutting through narrow mounds that were once fallen trees. During heavy storms, water collects in two round sinkholes, formed ages ago as rain dissolved the limestone that is the bedrock of southern Indiana farms.

What else is there? Now that you are in on this little known Gardens theme, perhaps you'll spot more for yourself! Keep an eye out for things referencing the farm and the surrounding Indiana landscape. And wintertime, when the plants are hibernating, is the perfect time to look for those little agrarian details in the White River Gardens.​

Dec 13
A New Home for Mom and Baby

​Just before the fall season moved in, the Zoo's orangutan population grew by two. Kim, a 38-year-old orangutan and her baby Max moved to the Indianapolis Zoo from the Jackson Zoo in Mississippi. At 9-months-old, Max was showing signs of slow development and Indianapolis was selected to provide a new home for mom and baby. The decision was based on the strength of the Zoo's state-of-the-art facilities, expert veterinary staff, skilled ape caretakers, and management philosophy. 

Since arriving, Kim and Max have lived in the former orangutan facility with indoor and outdoor access. Kim was overweight when she arrived and has steadily lost weight over the last 10 weeks and her mobility has increased drastically. The vet staff has also worked diligently to care for Max and he is responding well with a marked increase in his appetite, activity and coordination. Everyone is very pleased with his progress.

Soon, the two will move into the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. You probably won't see them right away. What will happen first are some behind-the-scenes introductions to other orangutans like Knobi, who is known for her ability to jump in as an Auntie and help care for a baby, like 8-month-old orangutan Mila. As Kim is comfortable, she'll make her way out into the Atrium with baby.

Orangutan moms like Kim will model behavior for their babies to help them learn all the skills they need to know. Young orangutans in the wild spend lots of time with their mothers to learn how to survive in the forest. Weaning usually takes seven to nine years, which makes for the longest inter-birth interval of any mammal!

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