src=" &noscript=1"/>
Zoo News

Zoo News

Dallas Zookeepers Complete Earthwatch Assignments
Jan 4, 2012

DALLAS –  Earthwatch Institute grant recipients from the Dallas Zoo put their knowledge into action as three zookeepers traveled across the globe to assist with conservation research projects in South Africa and Kenya. Following an extensive application and selection process, Debbie S. Milligan, Sarah Villarreal, and Rebecca Wolf were chosen to participate in Earthwatch volunteer programs in Cape Town, South Africa; Nanyuki, Kenya; and Polokwane, South Africa. Their trips, valued at more than $3,000 each, were funded by grants from the Dallas Zoo and Zoo volunteer Dr. Sandra Seidenfeld.

“The animal keepers at the Dallas Zoo are a group of incredible individuals, who dedicate their lives to enhancing animal welfare at home and abroad,” said Gregg Hudson, executive director of the Dallas Zoo and the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park. “Every day, they ‘walk the talk’ through their work with the animals under their care and by sharing their knowledge with the public in zookeeper talks. They even donate their personal time and resources by raising funds for conservation causes. In most cases, they would not be able to visit Africa without the help of the grants. We were pleased to be able to play a part in their personal and professional development.”

The grants included airfare, ground transportation to the work site, lodging in basic research facilities, food, and minor expenses. As part of the grant requirements, each zookeeper must share her experiences with Dallas Zoo employees in a brown bag discussion. They also must give a presentation of their project to a local community organization.

Debbie S. Milligan

Often referred to as “penguin mama” by fellow Zoo employees, Debbie S. Milligan has managed the African penguins at the Don Glendenning Penguin Cove since 2006. The senior bird keeper started working at the Zoo in 1995 and originally cared for raptors and parrots.

Milligan traveled to the penguin research facility at Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa on May 6-21. The former site of a penal colony, it is now a World Heritage Site hosting the second largest colony of African penguins on the planet. It also is one of southern Africa’s premier breeding sites for seabirds, such as cormorants, swift terns, and kelp gulls.

She monitored and checked conditions in more than 200 nests on the island, which were located on sandy beaches, under trees, in office complex areas, and even in old prison cells. African penguins were recently added to the Endangered Species List due to reduced reproduction in the birds. There are only about 100 humans inhabiting the island and no guns are allowed. However, predators include feral cats, European rabbits, fallow deer, and kelp gulls, which eat or destroy penguin eggs.

“It was interesting to see that these wild penguins have some of the same behaviors as those I work with at the Zoo, such as the way they defend their nests,” Milligan said. “But what I brought back was an understanding of how birds struggle in the wild and I can share that with others.”

Sarah Villarreal

A great ape keeper at the Dallas Zoo for almost two years, Sarah Villarreal works with gorillas and chimps in the Wilds of Africa. Before coming to Dallas, she cared for birds and great apes in New Mexico and carnivores in Wisconsin. Villarreal’s Earthwatch adventure took her to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya on July 4-18 to study black rhinos and other wild animals.

Villarreal traveled throughout the conservancy area to measure the composition and condition of the vegetation that competing large herbivores consume, namely rhinos, elephants, and giraffes. She measured the diameter of trees in the area as well as elephant dung. Villarreal and her team compiled spreadsheet data into Excel forms so that researchers could access the information more easily in the future. She also visited local villages so that area residents could understand the importance of wildlife to others around the world.

“As a zookeeper, your hope is to get into the field and observe animal behavior in its natural environment so you can use that information to recreate habitats in zoos,” Villarreal said. “In the Lake Nakuru National Park, animals are desensitized to tourists while wildlife in the conservancy is much more leery of people. You realize that you are in the animals’ territory. They’re in control and you can only control your own actions. It humbles you and puts you in your place.”

Rebecca Wolf

Although her last name is Wolf, Rebecca has spent seven years at the Dallas Zoo caring for felines — not canines. She currently is working with lions and cheetahs at the Giants of the Savanna exhibit. She traveled to the Lajuma Research Station near Polokwane, South Africa, just south of the Botswana border, from August 2-13 to gather information with the potential for managing human-wildlife conflict in the region.

Wolf assisted with camera-trapping, GPS data collection, scat analysis, and conducting observations of mammalian behavior. She and her team collected memory cards from the trip-cameras and brought them back to camp to utilize the pictures in identifying leopards based on the spot patterns of known individuals. During the scat analysis, researchers would study samples to look for evidence that the leopards were feeding on local residents’ cattle. The cats were found to prey almost exclusively on bushbuck, duikers, warthogs, hyrax, and primates in the area.

“One of the most rewarding experiences was visiting the local eco-schools,” Wolf said. “We told them how lucky they are to have giraffes and leopards in their back yards. As zookeepers, we often push people to conserve. This trip provided an opportunity to see grassroots efforts for myself. We saw all the different problems conservationists face in the field. You can’t just throw money at the problem and fix it. You have to change perceptions.”

Dallas Zoo keepers are already in the process of applying for 2012 Earthwatch grants. The recipients will be announced at the Zoo’s holiday party in December.

The Dallas Zoo is the largest zoological experience in Texas with 106 acres of developed land. It is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. American Airlines is the official airline of the Dallas Zoo. The Zoo is located at 650 S. R.L. Thornton Freeway (I-35 at Marsalis). The Zoo is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, download the free iPhone app, visit, or call (469) 554-7500.

Contact: Susan Eckert
Eckert Communications
(214) 528-9347 office
(214) 476-2008 mobile