Animal ups and downs

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Zoos are controversial: most like to see wild animals from far-away
places close up, some think they exploit innocent creatures for profit in
unnatural surroundings. Here's a look at Helsinki City's operation.

Helsinki Zoo is quite small, but it has
an eclectic collection and is widely known for its successful breeding policy.
Founded in 1889, (when the classic cages were less animal-friendly as you can
see) it is now hoping to embark on a €150m 15-year programme that will make it
"a centre for nature education in Helsinki" states Director Seppo Turunen.

The new plan envisages an expansion of ‘cold-blooded' representation,
as a third of the 6,000 amphibian threatened species are. "There's no way to
save them in the wild because of a fungal disease, which can be controlled in
laboratory conditions," says Turunen, "Zoos will take responsibility for
keeping hundreds from extinction worldwide, Europe has selected 10, mainly from
the Mediterranean and Alps."

That is all in the future, things are
happening now – and in zoos that means day and night, often unseen. 2007 has
seen another impressive crop of newborns enter the world – and some are still
due. Currently 160 species reside though the total is unknown due to insect
populations.

Proud mothers are weaning Wolverine triplets, Asian Lion twins, a
Przewalski's Horse foal, Amur Leopard cubs, a Markhor kid, Mashmi Takin calf, a
spindly Goitred Gazelle (all rare), and a Rocky Mountain Goat kid. Keepers are
fingers-crossed for Snow Leopards and Dwarf Mongooses, which are due anytime
and may have made the news when you read this.

But breeding isn't one zoo, like everything else it's coordinated and
organized by computer. Korkeasaari is in many associations
where animal transfers are arranged among members – all of which are vetted by
specialist auditors to keep unworthy menageries out.

One is EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and Birds and Reptiles Curator Kirsi Pynnönen-Oudman
explains, "I know I don't need to breed Ural owls as there's no need. It's easy
with birds to take the eggs away and replace them with dummies."

Otherwise the female will keep laying. This is not so cruel: many eggs
are unfertilised as with this year's Bearded Vulture egg. Last year's chick
caused a zoological stir as it was Helsinki's first and uncommon generally.
It's now in a central European zoo.

When there's an organised breeding programme for a rare/threatened
animal, an ISIS (International Information Species System) SPARKS (Single Population Analysis and Record Keeping System) studbook is created with a world or European
coordinator.

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Helsinki Zoo has the studbook for Snow Leopards, Wolverines, Markhors
and Forest Reindeer. The coordinator arranges placements in zoos where
males/females are needed and when to breed: all to improve gene pools.

"We had a Hyacinth Macaw chick in 2005 and we'd love to send him away,
but the coordinator said there's too many males and could we keep it for
another 6 months. It may then go to the Canary Islands to a large outside
facility there," reveals Kirsi.

There's a problem with over-active ones too  "The King Island Wallabies are doing too
well, I have 9 joeys and I must find new homes for them!" smiles Kirsi.

Sometimes the only way to stop them doing what comes naturally is to
resort to human methods e.g. separation. The Brown Bear cubs are 18-months old
and still need their mother, so the male is separated from his family next
door.

The opposite of course happens. The European Mink, rare in the wild, is
notorious – because the female is so aggressive. In 20 years, Helsinki Zoo has
never bred them, but now a solution is ‘at hand' from Tallinn which has 10
years experience with these furry little fighters.

"She's only receptive to the male for 2-3 days when on heat, otherwise
she can kill him. And this can only be known by taking swabs daily," explains
Kirsi.

Their Chilean Flamingos are too few (16) to encourage the mating
display which is central to their breeding. One chick hatched 10 years ago, but
now mirrors in the den are trying to trick them into thinking they are more.

And Mother Nature has a mind of her own. A South American rodent, a
female Aguti, gave birth one day after flying in from Amsterdam. "Naturally she
wouldn't have travelled if it had been known she was pregnant," comments Kirsi.

And a junior snake keeper asked her senior colleague how many Tree
Vipers there were as she saw two in its terrarium. This snake had not seen a
male for 5 years, but snakes can retain sperm for when the conditions for
motherhood are right.

Weather affects them too with some rainforest species breeding when it
pours, thinking the wet season is starting. Hot conditions develop parasites
that attack newborn Northern animals with fatal results sometimes.

Why is Korkeasaari so successful? "It's easier to leave them alone,
maintain them as they are in the wild and not introduce unviable traits," sums
up Seppo.

Hand rearing is frowned on but a new programme for Ruffs will remove
all the chicks this year when they have hatched for 5 days. "They are difficult
zoo breeders and the first few days are critical. This will serve as a model
for all waders so we'll know how to breed the whole group," informs Kirsi.

Korkeasaari also serves as animal rescue centre for southern Finland
and will soon return the last 3 (of 5) seal pups found on beaches. Not to
mention squirrels, hares and lots of birds saved annually. Five Mexican
Axolotls (of 100) caught by a smuggler at Amsterdam Airport are also housed in
the aquarium section.

Helsinki Zoo has problems finding experienced keepers – but not people
wanting to be one: 1600 applied for 7 summer positions. With well over 500,000
visitors annually at €5/adult and €3/child*, it's one of the cheapest
anywhere – as part of Helsinki's policy of equality opportunity for anyone to
be able to see domestic and foreign fauna. 

*London Zoo £14.50, children €11

Melbourne Zoo AUS$22/11

Stockholm Zoo SKr90/40

Photos by Markku Bussman / Helsinki Zoo