Spencer’s “Animal of the Day”

November 11, 2020

It started when Spencer was very young, his love of animals and his ability to memorize facts.  As parents of those with autism, we are encouraged to use interests and obsessions to further educate, and so we did.  We added geography, where the animals are found and an abundance of science.  He memorized facts from videos, movies, books, stories and created scripts in his head about the animals.  At 17, he became a ZooTeen helping to enrich the experience of visitors to the Zoo.  This served a new purpose, as his animal knowledge was more than sufficient, he could use this strength to improve his socialization skills.  After two summers, he became a ZooTeen Leader.  

Even our family vacations catered to Seneca Park Zoo animals.  We visited Dhara (orangutan) at The Virginia Zoo, The Mystic Aquarium where Boomerang (sea lion) came from,  Cape May Zoo where Kaba (snow leopard) came from and Columbia, SC to check in on PJ (sea lion).  On these trips he would go into “docent” mode speaking to guests at these zoos about the animals.  I remember a specific interaction in Virginia overlooking an African habitat with multiple animals.  Twenty or so guests were taking in the view when he looked down from the decked area and pronounced loudly, “Wow, look at that yellow backed duiker”, and proceeded to tell us all about it.     I’m guessing none of us would have even noticed the animal tucked away under where we were standing, but all of our attention was immediately drawn to it.  That’s the awesome thing about him.  His passion is contagious.  


In March when his school program became minimal and virtual, he got the idea of sharing his passion virtually.  He created short 1-3 minute video clips on an animal each day and we posted them to Facebook His following caught on quickly and comments were shared including questions which were researched and answered.  Deb McGwin who had taken his senior photos created a tee-shirt for him as a gift, and by thanking her on Facebook, other “fans” of his requested shirts.  Imprintable Solutions created a link where those interested could purchase a shirt and added $4 as a donation to be collected for him to present to our Seneca Park Zoo.  His first check presentation is for 158 shirt sales or $632.  His following continues to grow and fans watch him now from Canada, Florida, California, Colorado. We love the interactions with viewers sharing their own photos and experiences with the animal of the day.  


At a time with heightened anxiety and uncertainty around Covid, Spencer’s videos bring a bright spot to many people’s days.  His personality and passion oozes.  As the number of videos increases each day (currently #234), it’s a reminder to many of how long we’ve been restricted.  To us, it is a reminder of his passion and diligence to give back to his community.  


-Ann Cole, Spencer’s Mom

Up close with polar bears in Churchill Manitoba

November 2, 2020

Early November is the time of year polar bears are making their way towards Hudson Bay, waiting for the sea ice to form.  Last year at this time,  Zoo Keeper Randi Krieger and Director of Education and Visitor Studies Kelly Ulrich traveled to Churchill, Manitoba to participate in Polar Bears International’s Climate Alliance Program. This is an extract of an article published in January 2020 ZooNooz recounting their experience. 

Churchill, Manitoba is known as the polar bear capital of the world. Polar bears migrate past, or through, town to reach the earliest developing sea ice, which forms at the mouth of the Churchill River in Western Hudson Bay. Once the ice forms, the bears go out to hunt seals on the sea ice, returning to land only when the ice recedes. Unfortunately, the sea ice is now forming later and melting sooner, leaving polar bears with less time to hunt. This is resulting in decreased body condition of polar bears, threatening their survival. This region exemplifies how conservation issues affect wildlife and humans. We had the opportunity to spend a week in Churchill with people from all over the country learning what we can do to help protect polar bears.

The concept of the trip was sparked in January 2019, when Krista Wright, the Executive Director of Polar Bears International (PBI) came to Seneca Park Zoo to give a talk on polar bears, and the conservation efforts and research of PBI. During this visit, we learned about PBI’s Climate Alliance Program, which educates zoo professionals about polar bears,  sea ice, and the effects climate change is having on the Arctic. Soon after, we applied and were accepted to participate in the 2019 program along with 18 other participants from zoos across the country. PBI also teamed up with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) to further the teaching and messaging of climate change for this session.Twenty minutes after landing, we saw our first polar bear!After a long journey, we arrived in Churchill.  Twenty minutes after landing, we saw our first polar bear! The bear ran out of the trees, across the road, and down the beach, diving into the Hudson Bay. It was thrilling that we had seen a bear so soon into our trip, and we hoped it wouldn’t be the last! We had our first Tundra Buggy tour, where we saw bald eagles, ptarmigans, and other wildlife. Tundra Buggies are elevated all-terrain vehicles designed to photograph and study polar bears. The trails the Buggy follow are old military roadways; there is no maintenance plan for these trails, which resulted in a very bumpy ride.

The next day after our morning classes, we visited Wapusk Adventures where we met David Daley and his sled dogs. He is a musher who taught us about the traditional connections to dogsledding and how he kept it alive by starting the Hudson Bay Quest, 211-mile race between Churchill and Gillam. We all had an opportunity to go dog sledding with his team, a very fun experience.The next day, we moved to the Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point. We were lucky to spend two nights sleeping out on the tundra, where we could have any kind of wildlife coming right up to the lodge. We were all very excited, since we knew this was our best chance at seeing more bears. All week we were joined by Bill Watkins of the Manitoba Department of Sustainable Management and Heather MacLeod of Parks Canada. They were wonderful and taught us about the history of Churchill and its culture. From the permafrost and periglacial landscape to nomadic tribes hundreds of years ago, we learned how the town developed through exploration and the fur trade.One day, we spent almost eight hours driving around on the buggy looking at wildlife.  Finally, as we were driving along the path, someone from the back of the Buggy yelled out, “STOP! BEAR!” Neither of us can recall a group of people falling silent as quickly as we did, until all you could hear were cameras clicking away, as everyone tried to get a snapshot to capture and remember the moment forever. We were lucky to see a beautiful female bear, and based on her behavior, our guides assumed she was a younger bear. Randi recalls, “After I took a few hundred photos, I put my camera down and just enjoyed the moment. I didn’t want to experience it through a lens. As I stood out on the observation deck, I was trembling from excitement at seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat. She was beautiful, and her body condition was good. I wiped tears from my eyes, so happy to have this opportunity to see such an amazing animal up close.”For Kelly, “The moment was surreal. As we drove through the tundra, I could imagine polar bears traversing the landscape, but now I was seeing one with my own eyes! It was an experience that I had hoped for almost half of my life, and now it was a reality.” The polar bear slowly made her way across the land and through the water.Getting to see the Arctic tundra firsthand was a wondrous experience. The landscape looks vast and open, yet the wildlife can find shelter and aptly camouflage with their surroundings. Getting to see the bears in their natural range was amazing but it is equally incredible that you can see one right here in Rochester by visiting Anoki. Next time you’re at the Zoo observing Anoki, take a moment to imagine the lives of polar bears around Churchill and throughout the Arctic. Depending on the time of year, those bears may be on the sea ice hunting seals, breeding, or getting ready to den down to give birth to cubs. Once the ice melts for the season, the bears come onto land and fast for months, just waiting for the ice to form again. They may forage for any food they can find, but these things do not provide the nutritional support the bears need to build up their fat reserves.

The sea ice is vital for polar bears to survive. The shorter sea ice season is due to changes in our atmosphere. Regular carbon dioxide is used and created by normal life processes; plants absorb what animals exhale. Rampant carbon dioxide comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. There is too much of it, and it’s getting out of control. This excess carbon dioxide builds up in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is like a blanket, and when we add carbon dioxide to this blanket, it gets thicker and traps heat underneath. This “blanket effect” leads to warming which disrupts the climate. This may seem like a difficult problem to fix, but by taking practical, common sense actions now, we can make real progress to address the problems facing our environment today and protect it for future generations.

– Randi Krieger and Kelly Ulrich

African Elephant Genny C turns 43!

November 1, 2020

Fall is here at Seneca Park Zoo which means Genny C’s birthday!  This year she is turning 43.  Genny C is one of the Zoo’s oldest and longest residents, arriving with Lilac as orphans in 1979 from the Kruger National Park. Over the years she has inspired staff and guests to further their passion for elephant conservation with her captivating personality.

Genny C loves time with her caregivers, and is almost always perfect for every training session.  This makes her the optimal elephant for new keepers to start their elephant training experience. But don’t let her fool you! Once she knows you are comfortable, she will start to test you to see if you are really paying attention, and will show her stubborn side. Just like humans, elephants love to do the least amount of work for the highest reward!The median life expectancy for female African elephants in human care is 38.1 years old. So at 43, Genny C needs a little extra TLC to ensure she is as comfortable as she can be. Originally, guests could tell her apart by her iconic long tusks, with the left one going the opposite way. But due to her arthritis in her front legs, we trimmed her tusks to reduce the weight these legs had to carry. This also allows her to lie down much easier! As you can imagine, it is extremely important for her to lie down at night to get weight off her joints. To further assist her with laying down, we made a hill in the barn which is much easier than flat ground for older elephants to use. Additionally, we installed a “tire rope” for her to grab onto if she needs extra help standing. Genny C is highly motivated to participate in her own health care, which helps us provide extra geriatric care including heat wraps, acupuncture and laser therapy (check out SPZ Facebook page for these videos and more)!

Out of the sixty different behaviors Genny C knows, her favorite activity is to hit a yoga ball with her trunk. One time she even hit it onto the roof of the barn! Hopefully next year guests will be able to try and catch it! She also is very enthusiastic about moving large logs around with a rope, showing off how strong she is. Genny C may not be our best painter, but she loves trying her best! The paint usually ends up on her keepers instead of the canvas.

While she often prefers spending time with her keepers, you can also find her sharing a hay net with Moki, or relaxing while sucking on her trunk. If you see her sucking on her trunk, you know she just enjoyed some of her favorite food or had some warm water from the hose. Another way to tell its Genny C is if she has hay on top of her head. This way no other elephant can steal it! She is the most vocal of our elephants and you can usually hear her purring or rumbling. You might even hear her blow raspberries or see her start wiggling when she wants her keepers’ attention.Genny C’s adaptability amazes us all, especially as her geriatric care continues to evolve. She is a wonderful ambassador animal for guests to connect with to inspire them to conserve elephants in their natural range. Make sure to wish her a happy birthday during your next visit!

– Zoo Keeper Kat Kleinschmidt

*Banner photo by Wayne Smith 

A Snow Leopard Update

October 27, 2020

You may have noticed that Silver and Timila are no longer sharing space together on exhibit. In nature snow leopard cubs leave their mothers at 18-22 months and become independent. We have been observing Silver and Timila’s behavior closely over the last few months in anticipation that they may become less compatible, especially as the next breeding season approaches.

To prepare Silver for the inevitable separation and move to another institution, we have been separating them for increasing lengths of time so that it would be easier for Silver to adjust. About four weeks ago, Timila’s behavior led us to the decision that the time had come for them to be permanently separated. Timila was avoiding Silver, vocalizing at him, posturing defensively, and occasionally swatting at him. Eventually, the Snow Leopard SSP will make a recommendation for Silver to move to another Zoo to start a family of his own.

Except for mothers with cubs and during breeding season (generally January to March), snow leopards are solitary in nature.  Although snow leopards in human care are often compatible year-round, this is why Timila and Kaba have not been together outside of breeding season. If we receive a recommendation to breed this year from the Snow Leopard SSP, we will monitor Timila and Kaba’s behavior, and we will reintroduce them when the time is right. However, if we suspect Timila is pregnant, we will separate them as her due date approaches since male snow leopards do not participate in cub rearing. Monitoring behavior closely allows us to make management decisions that maximize their welfare. Since this would only be Timila and Kaba’s second breeding season, we have to rely on their behavior and the limited experience from their first breeding season to make the best decisions.

While all three snow leopards are separated at this time, they each have equal access to the different areas of the habitat. They also are able to see each other and interact safely through mesh. Each animal is provided enrichment and training, and welfare is monitored closely.

– Kellee Wolowitz, Assistant Curator

Header photo – Timila, by Wayne Smith

An Update on Red Panda Conservation

September 17, 2020

Seneca Park Zoo supports conservation efforts both locally and globally. This week we are celebrating red pandas and highlighting the conservation work that is being done to protect this species and the natural habitat they depend on. Red pandas are naturally found in Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, which are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. These forests are also considered to be the lungs of South Asia – when they are healthy and functioning properly, they support the lives of the people, animals, and plants throughout the entire region.

As an arboreal species, red pandas depend heavily on these forests for all aspects of their survival. However, deforestation and fragmentation in this region has caused the global red panda population to decline by a whopping 50% over the last 20 years. To help protect these crucial forests, Seneca Park Zoo has partnered with Red Panda Network (RPN), who works together with local communities to educate and empower community members to protect red pandas and their habitat.

In eastern Nepal, RPN is establishing the world’s first protected area dedicated to red pandas: the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) Red Panda Protected Forest. This forest is home to over 100 red pandas and serves as an important corridor connecting protected areas in India, Nepal, and China. Establishing the PIT Red Panda Protected Forest will bridge a gap that will create 11,500km of uninterrupted protected land. This vast area will not only protect endangered red pandas, it will also benefit other species in the region including vulnerable clouded leopards, critically endangered pangolins, and hundreds of bird and plant species.

RPN recognizes that conservation can’t be successful without the support and partnership of surrounding communities. The PIT Red Panda Protected Forest will be the first protected forest in Nepal to be managed by a network of community forest groups, which will allow the people who use and protect the region to retain decision-making power over it. RPN works closely with local communities to develop conservation programs that foster environmental stewardship while also providing sustainable livelihoods for community members. These programs include an anti-poaching network, forest guardian team, livestock herding management committee, and forest conservation nurseries. Creating economic opportunities that benefit community members while also restoring their surrounding environment is a recipe for conservation success.You can support these efforts here.   To learn more about the important work Red Panda Network is doing, visit redpandanetwork.org

– Annie Wheeler, Lead Zoo Naturalist for Programs

Welcome Red Panda Willie!!

September 15, 2020

Welcome to our new male red panda, Willie! He recently came to us from Zoo Knoxville, in Tennessee. Due in part to travel restrictions, our primary red panda keeper drove about half-way to meet Zoo Knoxville staff at the Columbus Zoo to pick him up and bring him back to Rochester.

Willie was born on June 21, 2015, at the Greenville Zoo, in South Carolina. He was named after Willie Nelson, specifically after an old album called the Red Headed Stranger. On formal occasions, he has been referred to as William.Willie was brought here as a mate for our female red panda, Starlight, who is just two years younger than he is. You can tell them apart by comparing the coloration of their heads. Starlight has a dark colored head, and Willie has a light colored head.

Willie will have a lot of new things to get used to here, besides a new mate, and all new keepers. We will need to give him time to get accustomed to being in an open top exhibit, where people can view him from three sides. You can help him to adjust, by lowering your voices when you squeal with excitement at their “cuteness”.

They will spend the fall getting to know each other, before the winter breeding season takes place. We are looking forward to seeing his reaction to a winter with some real New York snow!

-Heidi Beifus, Primary Cold Asia Zoo Keeper

*Banner photo by Heidi Beifus

African Elephant Moki Turns 38!

July 16, 2020

Summer is finally here and it is time to celebrate! On July 15 one of my favorite ladies turned 38 years old – Moki the African Elephant! Moki joined our herd here at Seneca Park Zoo in 2015 and has been a perfect ambassador for her counterparts in nature ever since.A few ways to tell her apart from the others are that she is our largest elephant, weighing in at a cool 8,300 pounds, and has the longest tusks. She is also our only elephant friend who knows a behavior where she makes a sound from her trunk – how amazing!

I started working with the elephants in 2019 and Moki was the first one I started training with. She instantly became my favorite – yes, I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites but hear me out. She absolutely loves food (just like me) and she’s crazy smart. Who wouldn’t love a friend like that?! What truly made me fall in love with her though is the fact that she has been very patient with me as I began learning and continue to learn the ins and outs of working with elephants. She truly has made it so much fun.

An interesting fact about Moki is that she has, what I call, an “extendo-trunk”. Elephants can reach up to 8 feet with their trunks, but I swear Moki has figured out a way to extend her trunk even longer than that! It definitely makes hanging enrichment a little more complicated, but it is so awesome to see her extend her trunk as far as she can.

We are so thrilled that the zoo has finally opened and you all can come visit. And if you do, don’t forget to make your way down to the elephants and wish Moki a BIG {elephant}astic 38th Birthday!

-Hanna Kaiser, Zoo Keeper

*Banner photo by Wayne Smith

Grieving the Loss of an Animal in Our Care

June 19, 2020

When a Zoo animal dies, we share the news and as many details as possible. We know how much our community mourns the loss of an animal at the Zoo.

While an animal’s death might seem like the end, for the animal care professionals who cared for that individual, it begins a grieving process. Although these animals are not pets, and not ours, there is a similar sense of loss, the same grieving that comes with losing a companion animal. We form relationships with the animals in our care, many of which last many years. And, just like when a pet ages, the relationship often becomes even stronger towards the end as a result of the increased care that geriatric animals require.

After an animal dies, there are food bowls, favorite toys or blankets that must be put away. Dens or shelters need to be cleaned, sometimes to be left empty for a long period of time. All are sad reminders of a living being that touched us in some way. On top of that, we need to answer questions from guests about the animal; like where they are (not everyone may know they passed away) or how they died. Legitimate inquiries for sure, and we welcome the genuine interest in them, but talking about an animal you cared for that is no longer with us while containing your emotions in the process can be difficult. Although zoo keepers have the best jobs in the world, this is an unfortunate part of a commitment to a lifetime of care.

The recent death of our older female otter Sara prompted me to reflect on these experiences. While we had been treating Sara for several age-related conditions and knew she had outlived her life expectancy, her sudden decline made things all the more difficult. However, after going through some video I took on my last day with Sara, I thought sharing both might bring some closure and peace of mind, not only for me and her other caregivers but the thousands of our guests who sent their thoughts to us since the announcement. It might also shed some light on a seldom talked about subject that everyone who cares for animals has experienced.

So, here’s Sweet Sara, casually chasing down some fish and generally enjoying herself the day before she died. In reality, this is the kind of the end-of-life experience we want, happy until the end. This was a great day for us both, and that is the memory of her that I will always carry with me.

– Brian Sheets, Zoologist

Celebrate Red Panda Starlight’s 3rd Birthday!

June 17, 2020

Our red panda Starlight turns 3 years old today –  June 17th. She will be celebrating with all of her favorite treats, including bamboo sprouts, grapes, apple slices, and apple-based biscuits.This will be in addition to her regular base diet of leaf eater biscuits and, of course, bamboo. She likes banana, pear, and the occasional blueberry as well. If she gets her “birthday wish”, it will be semi-cool and cloudy outside that day. If you recall, red pandas are not real big fans of the summer weather, especially mid-day. Like most of our carnivores, to help her get ready for it though, she is currently shedding her thick furry coat.

Many people had been asking when Starlight is going to get a new “friend”. Like a lot of our carnivores, red pandas are more solitary in nature. They interact during the winter breeding season, but the rest of the year, they tend to just co-exist. However, she was all set to get a new mate in March, and then the pandemic hit, so it has not been able to happen yet.

Once it is safe to travel with a red panda, then we will go and get him by car. At this point, we have no idea of when that will be, but until then, we will enjoy our one-on-one time with Starlight.

– Zoo Keeper Heidi Beifus

*Banner photo by Heidi Beifus

Snow Leopard Silver’s First Birthday!

May 29, 2020

Spring is the season of new life in many parts of the world. The flowers are blossoming, the trees are budding, and many different species of animals are born. We celebrate the birth of several feline right here at our own zoo. May is a big month for all 3 of our snow leopards. The male Kaba turned 10 on the 10th, the female Timila turned 4 on the 24th, and their first male offspring, Silver, turned 1 year old on the 27th. This isn’t just a coincidence – snow leopards have only one mating season annually (January-March) and ~90-110 day pregnancy so cubs are generally born late spring/early summer. The last 8 months since Silver went out on exhibit have been filled with both adventures, as well as learning many new important life skills for his future.

Silver has come a long way during his first year of life here at our zoo. His “education” began as soon as he emerged from the nest box, at just two months of age. His mom taught him to follow her, as well as to stay put. Just like any youngster, staying in one place is not easy! He learns a lot by mimicking his mother’s behaviors. Lucky for his keepers, she is a very intelligent cat who set him up for success, and, he is extremely food motivated. Once he learned how to shift from area to area, since he was about three months old, he has been getting weighed weekly. He weighed about one pound at birth, and has been continually gaining approximately one pound per week since then. At a year old, he now weighs a solid 56 pounds! As a juvenile, aka “teenager”, he is almost as big as his mother, but about half the size of his father.

Over this spring, Silver finally managed to get up on top of the one remaining high perch, where Timila would go to get some personal space. Although he is relentless in his pursuit of play, she out-maneuvers him every time. He has been entertaining himself with toys in the splash pool, and she has been showing him how to “fish” the decoy ducks out of it. The pool will help them to stay cool in the hot summer months ahead. The adults prepare for the heat in their own way every spring by shedding their winter coats. Matter of fact, Silver started losing his cub “fuzz” this month. He is turning in to quite the handsome young snow leopard! One of his favorite positions to lie in is, on his back with his fluffy belly up, just like his father Kaba. 🙂

– Heidi Beifus

Header photo: Assistant Curator Kellee Wolowitz