Zoo Guests Carrion on about Vultures!
Animal Keeper IV, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Colorado Springs, CO
Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in the areas that they occur. Of the 23 species of vultures and condors around the world, 10 species are considered threatened, vulnerable, or endangered and some species are facing extinction. In order to help protect these birds, people first need to understand their role in nature and be helped to move past the first impressions of vultures as being dirty,
disease-ridden, ugly birds. That was exactly my goal when creating a day to celebrate vultures around the world.
The first International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) was held on September 5, 2009 in an effort to help people understand the importance of vultures and realize their plight. IVAD is celebrated on the first Saturday of September at various conservation organizations, zoos, rehabilitation facilities and environmental agencies around the world. Each institution celebrates IVAD in its own unique way from free-flight bird demonstrations and bird walks to vulture feedings and fun hand’s-on kids’ activities that are often headed up by volunteers and docents.
Zoo and aquarium docents are at the forefront of conservation education. They educate people about our natural world and inspire them to conserve it. Many institutions rely on knowledgeable volunteers such as docents to help them run special events. Some zoos have not been able to expand much beyond keeper talks during their IVAD
celebrations due to a lack of staffing and some facilities have not been able to participate at all. If docents were given ideas of what they could do with guests and the tools to follow through with these ideas, think how many more people could be reached with the message about the value of vultures! This is my goal for this paper, to help create as many vulture fans as possible and to help raise money for vulture conservation.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ) has held three very successful IVAD celebrations over the years, engaging, educating and inspiring thousands of guests. CMZ’s Quarters for Conservation (Q4C) program has raised $25,000 for vulture conservation since 2009.
CMZ has helped support the work of VulPro, a non-profit group focused on protecting South Africa’s vulture species. VulPro’s work is comprised of rehabilitation, monitoring resident populations, captive breeding, education, research and reintroduction. While all aspects of VulPro’s work are important, education (as it is with saving any species) is key.
To learn more about VulPro’s work visit http://www.vultureconservation.co.za/
The focus of CMZ’s IVAD celebrations has been to highlight the qualities and habits that make vultures really “cool,” in fun and entertaining ways. We have done this through some unique experiments and activities, like making vulture vomit and hurling it at vulture enemies. I will admit, this gets a little messy, but it’s well worth it!
Kids make the “vomit” out of borax, glue and food coloring and then can throw it at photos of vulture predators and human-caused threats (poison, power lines, etc). The kids learn about why vultures vomit and they have fun in the process! This station was our biggest hit last year. Even adults enjoyed it!
Another popular station is our vulture stomach juice station. Here kids learn about how strong the digestive juices of vultures are and how that is why vultures can eat decomposing carcasses and not get sick. They also learn how important the job of vultures is by keeping our earth cleaned up and ridding it of disease. Since we can’t fully simulate the true acidity of vulture stomach juices, we use a more kid-friendly product–vinegar. Antacids dropped into the vinegar (colored red with Kool-Aid) create an exciting fizzing reaction that makes it seem like the vulture’s stomach is killing all the bacteria in its meal.
We also do “scavenger” hunts in the zoo, where kids have to find red vulture fact signs hung up all around the zoo to answer questions on a worksheet guests receive when they enter the zoo. The winner gets to accompany a zookeeper and enter into our giraffe/bird exhibit to feed the vultures. The beauty of this activity is that there is
absolutely NO WAY that a zoo guest can leave at the end of the day without at least thinking about or learning about vultures. The signs are located everywhere–from the counters at our restaurant, where guests can learn about how much a vulture can eat at one meal, to the bathroom stalls, where guests can learn about how vultures stay cool by practicing urohydrosis. Be creative! The great thing about vultures is that they give us SO much to work with in the way of interesting facts!
This year I experimented with a new idea in an effort to raise money for VulPro, I made edible vulture vomit. Now before you turn away in disgust, let me explain… My vulture vomit is actually chocolate bark. I decided that I needed more than one flavor of vomit to offer, so I made it zebra-flavored, giraffe-flavored, lion-flavored and hippoflavored.
I created professional-looking labels with each “vomit’s” ingredients listed. The zebra-flavored vomit was white and milk chocolate swirled together. The lionflavored vomit was milk chocolate and peanut butter chips swirled together with peanuts. You get the idea. It was a HUGE hit and I sold out within an hour!
Other IVAD stations and activities have included an observation station where guests can observe the local turkey vultures that fly over the zoo, an enrichment station where guests can make vulture enrichment, an art station where kids can make vulture puppets and masks, a vulture nest-building station, and a recycling station where
guests can learn about how vultures are nature’s recyclers and what things they can recycle locally. Everything focuses on helping people appreciate the value of vultures with the goal of inspiring them to action. We provide action items of what people can do right here in Colorado to help vultures, from cleaning up trash and not using
poisons to kill wildlife to reporting road kill to the proper authorities.
Creating awareness is the first step to helping protect a species, but in the end funding is what is really needed. At CMZ guests are able to directly affect the conservation of vultures by voting for the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) project at our Q4C kiosk. This is how over the last three years CMZ has raised $25,000 for VulPro’s African vulture conservation work. There are many ways in which your institution can raise funds for
VulPro or other organizations focused solely on vulture conservation. You can set up an Adopt-A-Vulture program at your institution, offer behind-the-scenes tours and opportunities with your vultures or condors, you can sell products like vulture plushes or keychains or food items such as Vulture Vomit. What about selling vulture
footprints? People love to purchase artwork created by animals! Be creative! The sky is the limit!
My hope is that docents around the country (and world!) will take the information and ideas presented in this paper back to their home institution and celebrate IVAD with us in 2013! After all, vultures can never have too many fans.