Friday, December 21, 2018

Mexican Wolf Round-Up Conservation Trip

Hello Everyone! My name is Sarah Murphy and I am an Education Specialist at the El Paso Zoo. During my two years at the zoo and in the past, I have always been fascinated by the Mexican wolf, the history of the species and its recovery from extinction in the wild. For those of you who do not know, the Mexican wolf has not always been a popular predator to have around in the United States. As people moved into the southwest to set up their farms, ranches and homes, animals that lived in this area began to lose their habitat. With less space to hunt and find resources necessary for survival, conflict grew between wolves and humans. Stories about werewolves and the big bad wolf created an image of wolves being vicious hunters, thus instilling fear in people. Based on this fear and the thought that wolves were hunting livestock, people hunted the wolf to extinction in the wild. Luckily, before the Mexican wolf went extinct, seven wolves were pulled from the wild to start a recovery program to save the species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service manages this recovery program, with many zoos and wildlife organizations being a part of the effort to save the Mexican wolf. This brings me to the reason for this blog.
The El Paso Zoo, under management by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is a part of the Mexican wolf recovery effort and supports wolf conservation projects. One of which included a trip to Ladder Ranch in New Mexico on November 15th, 2018, and I was lucky to be chosen to participate in this project.
I woke up early enough to arrive at the Zoo by 3:30 am to make the two and a half hour trip to Ladder Ranch Wolf Management Facility.  Along with four other zoo employees (Dr. Milne, Nikki, Lili, and Jon), we were going to be helping a larger group to capture wolves for health exams and transport to other facilities. We arrived at Ladder Ranch HQ just before 6:00 am to meet with the group, have a brief safety meeting, and head out to the wolf pens. The goal was to catch 14 wolves over the course of the day to give them vaccinations, get blood samples and give an overall health exam before they were crated for transport.
Not knowing what exactly to expect, even after the safety brief, I headed out into the first pen in line with about 30 people. This pen only had two wolves in it, one that would be crated for transport and one that only needed a health check. The pens in which these wolves are kept are natural spaces full of native plants, cacti and rocks that we had to navigate, while keeping a tight line to guide the wolf to a smaller holding pen. The first capture was over in the blink of an eye. The wolves went into the holding pen, where there are den boxes to secure them. At this time, we all filed out of the pen to give space for the veterinarians and team to complete the health exams.   
The next captures took much more time and effort, as there were ten wolves in the next pen and we could only catch up 2-3 at a time. For each capture, all 30 volunteers lined up, filed down into the pen, and slowly started walking towards the top. We acted like a human wall (holding tools like Y-poles and boards) to move the wolves towards the holding pens, with each capture sending a few wolves into the den boxes. Again, once the wolves were secure in the den boxes, the veterinarians stepped in to do their exams: temperature check, listen to their heart rate, get a blood sample, administer vaccinations, and for the younger wolves, put on an ID collar. When we started in the morning, it was quite cold, but as we continued to work and the day progressed, the temperature rose. Many of the volunteers, including myself, began to shed layers of coats, jackets and sweatshirts. As it became warmer and with the stress of being caught for exams and transport, the wolves’ temperatures rose as well. With this in mind, though, the veterinarians and the volunteers working directly with the wolves were prepared with ice packs, alcohol (poured on the wolves feet to cool them), and cool IV fluids. They quickly assessed each wolf, gave them the medications and vaccinations necessary, and loaded them into crates for transport. The entire operation ran so efficiently that we were able to capture nine out of ten wolves in the second pen (the only reason we did not get all ten was that the last wolf had hidden inside a natural den where we were unable to reach her or coax her out)!

With that, it was already early afternoon and there were only two wolves left to examine and transport (like the first pen, only one wolf would be transported to another facility, while the other wolf would just be moving to a new pen). I thought, based on how the earlier captures had gone that this final capture would go like clockwork. I was wrong. We did get the first wolf into the holding pen and den box quite easily, but the second wolf definitely tested our line/human wall to see where she could break through. While we made our way up the pen in our formation, quickly moving around the trees and shrubs, climbing over rocks, and trying to avoid cacti, the final wolf made a break for a hole in our line and made it through to the back of the pen. She was not going to give in easily to the capture. In a second attempt, we reformed our line along the edge of the pen and made our way to the back to move the wolf forward. She began to make her way toward the holding pen, but again, looked for an opening in our line. The wolf challenged us, coming close at several points to see if she could slip through the human wall that was inching her towards the top. Finally, she gave up and ran to the den box in the holding pen. There, just as before, the veterinarians and team quickly and efficiently completed their exams and moved the wolves into crates for transport.

Every day, here at the Zoo, I walk through our El Paso Water Discovery Center where we play a video about Mexican wolves. In that video, it goes through exactly how these captures happen. It shows the “human wall” moving wolves towards a smaller holding pen, it shows veterinarians examining wolves to evaluate health concerns or give medications and vaccines. Having just watched short clips as I would pass through the building, I never put two and two together as to how it all actually worked. Now that I have had the opportunity to help with wolf captures and seen these animals up close, it gives me an immense appreciation for the species and all of the people who have worked to save them. These animals are not vicious creatures out to get people or their livestock—they are timid and nervous around humans, yet an important predator in keeping the balance of their ecosystem. I am so grateful to have had the chance to work with these animals in the wild, and look forward to continuing to help save this native and critically endangered species!




Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I am back in El Paso

Read see our first blog about this Madagascar radiated tortoise rescue effort here.  The El Paso Zoo is working to save endangered species here in El Paso and around the world.  

Hello everyone.   This is El Paso Zoo Keeper Luis Villanueva.  I am back in El Paso after completing my 16-day trip to Madagascar!   ​My experience was incredibly rewarding and it has been an honor helping the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team with such an important project.  One thing I have learned is the importance of protecting such majestic animals. Poachers continue to take radiated tortoises from their natural habitat and there are constant confiscations.  To learn more about this project check out the Turtle Survival Alliance Radiated Tortoise Project page.

Here are some more pictures.   If you have any questions please contact me by email at

Here I am working with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team members labeling and measuring rescued radiated tortoises near the Madagascar Rescue Center near Itampolo.  Each tortoise was sorted by size and weight and given a number.

Water is not readily available in the Itampolo area so every day we had to collect water from wells in different villages to support our efforts. 

I worked with Kate Leach a Veterinarian from the Atlanta Zoo when helping to access the health of each rescued tortoise.

Illegally collected radiated tortoises are often confiscated by government officials.  These tortoises were temporarily held at a TSA facility in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.  

Here I am with fellow turtle rescue team members near Itampolo. 

 Special thanks to all the guests at the El Paso Zoo who rounded up their purchases at the Zoo gift shop and restaurants.  If it wasn’t for your donations I would not have been able to go on this important conservation trip.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Hello from Madagascar!

El Paso Zoo Keeper Luis Villanueva, is in Madagascar this month working with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) as part of an effort to save more than 10,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises. Last month the El Paso Zoo answered a call for help dispatched to Animal Experts from Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The tortoises were discovered in April by local police in a private residence in Toliara, Madagascar. The floors of virtually every room in the house were covered with tortoises that had no access to food or water. The tortoises have since been transferred to “Villages des Tortues,” a secure wildlife facility in Ifaty where conservation partners from around the world are headed to assist.

“The radiated tortoise is critically endangered due to poaching and deforestation. These magnificent animals can live up 180 years old and are some of the most beautiful Tortoises in the world, which leads to exploitation in the pet trade,” said Villanueva. Hundreds of the tortoises have already died from dehydration and illness. 

Luis does not have much access to WiFi but the other day was able to send the following message:

Today we visited one of the TSA locations here in Antananarivo. Here they keep around 1800 tortoises that have been confiscated.   Here are some pictures of the place. 

After we visited the TSA facility we went to a crocodile farm.  Here are some pictures.

 Verreaux's Sifaka, an endangered species of lemur.

As soon as we hear from Luis again we will post new information and pictures here.

This is not the first time EPZ has sent staff to help an international cause. In 2016, EPZ worked together with other AZA Zoos to help hand rear baby Penninsular pronghorn antelopes in the El Vizcaino Biosphere Preserve in Baja California Sur, Mexico to create an insurance population for the diminishing species. “El Paso Zoo, as an AZA accredited zoo, demonstrates that its staff has acquired the experience needed to work with endangered species,” said Villanueva.

It is estimated that the radiated tortoise population in the wild has declined more than 80 percent in the last 30 years. There is a real chance they could be extinct in the wild in less than two decades.

About El Paso Zoo

The El Paso Zoo is a 35-acre facility that houses animals representing over 220 species, including critically endangered species. Accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the El Paso Zoo celebrates the value of animals and natural resources and creates opportunities for people to rediscover their connection to nature.

About the Turtle Survival Alliance

The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) is an internationally recognized action-oriented global partnership, focusing on species that are at high risk of extinction, and working in turtle diversity hotspots around the world. The group was originally organized in 2001 in response to the rampant and unsustainable harvest of Asian turtle populations to supply Chinese markets, referred to as the Asian Turtle Crisis. Since then, TSA has evolved to respond to other endangered turtle species around the world with current projects or programs in Belize, Colombia, Europe, Madagascar, and throughout Asia. Today the TSA supports projects or programs – both wild and captive - that benefit 21 of the World’s 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. For more details on TSA’s programs, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @TurtleSurvival.



Friday, May 25, 2018

During the summer of 2014 the El Paso Zoo sent Dr. Vikki Milne to Borneo to help with conservation projects in cooperation with UTEP.   

In the picture above Dr. Milne is seen holding a rehabilitated Golden Eagle in the Sierra Blanca area of west Texas as part of the Zoo’s wildlife conservation and rehabilitation efforts.  The eagle named Sierra was taken to the zoo in January, 2018 after she was found with a broken bone in her wing and general weakness and dehydration.

El Paso Zoo veterinary staff provided medical care until the eagle healed and could be transferred for further rehabilitation and flight preparation by the Gila Wildlife Rescue in Silver City, New Mexico.

We hope you enjoy reading Dr. Milne's blog post from her memorable trip to Borneo.