For Nik Dehejia, president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo, the zoo's longevity has extra meaning in the context of conservation in the United States. "It was only 50 years ago that the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States started," he says. "It was only 50 years ago that the Endangered Species Act started the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, a multinational governmental agency committed to protecting the species.
"So we are constantly learning."
Keep reading for more on the Oakland Zoo's most recent wildlife conservation efforts — including the April rescue of mountain lion cub Rose.
Rescuing mountain lions
You may have heard about Rose, the rescued mountain lion cub that hikers spotted in San Mateo in early April. She was only 5 or 6 months old when, critically ill, she was sent to the Oakland Zoo for rehabilitation.
"She literally was skin and bones," said the zoo's vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Alex Herman.
Herman and her team provide preventive, emergency, reproductive and geriatric care for all the animals in the zoo, focusing not just on their medical needs but on an animal's emotional and social welfare. Her team also provides care for a lot of rescued wildlife in California, like Rose.
Rose is the 18th orphaned mountain lion to be treated at the Oakland Zoo. When she first arrived, Rose was anemic, meaning she had a very low red blood cell count. So Herman gave Rose a blood transfusion, using blood from one of the zoo’s healthier mountain lions, Silverado.
"We like the red blood cell count to be between 30 and 40%. She was at 9%, which is not consistent with life," said Herman. But "she jumped up to 23, and went up from there after the transfusion."
While saving her life by providing intensive care was the priority for the veterinary team, after that "we really needed to work on her well-being and her welfare, so that she could exist with humans in a comfortable way," said Herman. Because Rose is still too young to go back into the wild, especially without a mother, the current focus for Herman and her team is to ensure she’s less fearful of interacting with people — and can grow to see it as a positive experience.
"At some point, we'd like to develop a re-wilding system so that we can send these baby mountain lions back out into the wild," said Herman.
In California, these intelligent alpha predators frequently get struck by cars. Most mountain lion cubs that lose their mothers when they’re less than 1 1/2 years old can’t survive on their own. "The adult cats don't abandon a baby mountain lion. Their parent wouldn't do that unless they were killed," said Herman.
The Oakland Zoo currently has two resident condors on its campus — and they're part of the California Condor Recovery Program, in which the zoo is a key veterinarian partner.
In the mid-'80s, only a couple dozen condors were left in the wild. Their population crashed catastrophically due to habitat loss, the use of the insecticide DDT, and the most significant cause: lead toxicity. Condors end up consuming lead ammunition pellets when they eat the carcass of an animal that someone hunted and left behind. The ammunition causes devastating lead poisoning.
After pulling the last remaining condors into captivity, an alliance of zoos and other organizations in 1986 started a captive breeding program.
As part of this program, these condors are tracked and checked for blood lead levels, and if they show signs of lead toxicity, they’re treated through chelation — a process that removes lead from their bloodstream. These efforts have proved to be a success. There are now more than 500 California condors currently in the wild or in captivity. The Oakland Zoo says that since 2014, it's treated and released 45 California condors.
"It's the first condor release site that's really looking at not just the ecological impact of having condors gone from the diverse ecosystem, but the cultural impact of having them gone, too," said Herman.
Soaring with joy as a third condor was released into the wild from the new Northern California Condor Restoration Program facility in the Yurok territory north of Eureka.
You can support the protection of California condors by refraining from littering, picking up trash when you’re in nature and switching to non-lead bullets when hunting. You can also go condor spotting and spread the word about these spectacular animals. Read more about ways to help California condors.
Caring for endangered rabbits
Riparian brush rabbits — or, as Herman calls them, the "gardeners of the ecosystem" — do a lot for the native plants around the San Joaquin River, in addition to being a protein source for alpha predators higher up in the food chain.
Herman and her team have been vaccinating these endangered rabbits against the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV2).
"We're really glad that we had this two-year window of time to prepare these endangered rabbits for this, because the virus has been slowly creeping north in California — but now it's been found in their locale," said Herman. "So we're hoping that they can weather the storm with the help of the vaccine that we trialed and then really helped administer as well."
The Oakland Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the national organization that sets the highest standards for animal welfare for zoos and aquariums. And Dehejia, president of the Oakland Zoo, says he's also grateful for the zoo's partnership with medical facilities at UC Davis and other locations, which allows the zoo to provide the best care possible to its animals.
"It's that interdependency and that connection that allows us to collectively be successful," he said. "The future of animals and people: It's in our hands, so we have to do it together."
Dehejia is also focused on the Oakland Zoo's outreach and educational programs to create awareness, action and future stewards of the environment.
The zoo spends approximately $2 million per month to run its operations, and the care provided to animals is critical. The zoo serves a thousand meals a day, with some animals receiving two or three meals each day, and then there's medications and dietary plans to keep track of.
"So it's a very complicated and complex operation to run just from an animal care standpoint," Dehejia said. "That's something that we will never compromise on."
Looking to the future, Dehejia says there's "a lot that we're looking forward to in the next hundred years."
On future goals, Dehejia said "certainly, continuing to create a thriving environment for people to come and experience here at the zoo. But [also] how we can help protect land, protect our waters and give people continued hope.”
For Alex Herman, a lot of the Oakland Zoo's work remains less visible to the public. "Some people aren’t aware of the real boots-on-the-ground conservation work that we do," she said.
"Not just saving individual animals like the mountain lions, but field-testing a vaccine that might save an endangered species, like with the riparian brush rabbits," Herman said. "And also a real commitment to community education."
Herman hopes people will continue to appreciate these animals — or, as she calls them, "charismatic demigods."
"The world that they inhabit is different from ours. And equally — if not more — important, we need them so much to be," she said.