Fort Wayne Zookeepers Take Lead in Species Survival and Reproduction

Sep 7, 2021

Credit PETER DOMINOWSKI / WBOI

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums chooses zookeepers to manage the survival plans and studbooks for different species throughout North America. These keepers are tasked with keeping the species diverse and healthy in zoos throughout the country.

Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo boasts two of these coordinators.

A studbook documents the pedigree and demographic history of every animal in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) managed population among affiliated institutions.

In Fort Wayne, those populations are De Brazza’s Monkeys and Eastern Grey Kangaroos. At Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, two zookeepers have also taken on the responsibility of managing those populations for all of North America.

“So, it captures who their mom and dad were, their birthdate," Amber Eagleson said. "It captures where they specifically are located and have they moved to different zoos in the past, who their offspring are, how many, and things like that.”

One of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo's four De Brazza's Monkeys clings to the fending around its enclosure on a warm, sunny day. De Brazza's Monkeys inhabit the swamps and forests of Central Africa.
Credit PETER DOMINOWSKI / WBOI

Eagleson is the Species Survival Plan (SSP) Coordinator and Studbook keeper for the De Brazza’s Monkeys. These particular monkeys are located at the back corner of the zoo’s African Journey section, in the area called the African Village.

De Brazza’s Monkeys are playful, agile monkeys that live in the forests and swamps of central Africa. They’re recognizable by their white beards and rusty orange brows.

Eagleson started her career in the African Journey at the zoo and said she’s always been very passionate about primates. When the job opening came up to manage the De Brazza’s Monkeys, Eagleson said it felt like a perfect fit.

“De Brazza’s I’ve worked with for at least 20 years," she said. "So, obviously, I love this species.”

She still had to go through the process of applying alongside colleagues from zoos all over the country, but she thinks her experience helped her secure the position. Eagleson has been the SSP Coordinator for four years and managing the studbook for two.

“You get to form relationships with a lot of different zoos across the country, which is great," she said. "You become really familiar with the species in general. So, it’s been a great experience.”

Part of the job as an SSP coordinator is to maintain long term genetic diversity and manage demographic distribution of animals throughout AZA zoos. Eagleson said there can be a lot of small things that go into managing the species, like considering for space and habitat when other zoos request monkeys to be moved in.

“You know, we don’t want to recommend for monkey A to be sent to this zoo if they don’t have adequate holding for it,” Eagleson said.

Credit CREDIT PETER DOMINOWSKI / WBOI

When other zoos are trying to solve specific issues with a species, such as behavioral issues or exhibit design, Eagleson said they’ll usually reach out to the SSP coordinator first to find out if other zoos have seen the issue and how they handled it. This, she said, has offered a great learning experience for her.

“I’ve actually been able to learn so much more about this species and also obtain ideas that I can use here at our institution,” Eagleson said.

Over in the zoo’s Australian Adventure, the Eastern Grey Kangaroos spend their days lounging beside the river ride in their open spaced enclosure. These kangaroos are distinguished from Red Kangaroos by their grey coat and smaller size. Telling them apart from Western Grey Kangaroos can be a little more difficult.

The Eastern Grey Kangaroo is one of three main species of Kangaroos indigenous to Australia. This kangaroo stretches in the sand next to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo river ride.
Credit PETER DOMINOWSKI / WBOI

  Luckily, Fort Wayne exclusively houses the Eastern Greys and zookeeper Shelley Sherer gets to manage the species’ survival plan and studbook.

Much like Eagleson, the opportunity to manage the species felt like a perfect position for Sherer when she applied.

“I’ve worked with wallabies my whole career and then I started working with kangaroos also, several years later,” she said.

Fort Wayne has the largest mob - or group - of Eastern Grey kangaroos in the United States and Sherer said it has historically been that way.

“So, we’ve seen, I wanna say, we’ve seen it all, you know?" Sherer said. "And we can kind of share our knowledge with other institutions which is really helpful.”

Sherer said when she took over the position of SSP coordinator and studbook manager, the population was in dire straits in North America, due to a lack of males. She said it can be difficult to house in-tact, or unneutered, males because there can only be one in a group. They also can’t be allowed in an enclosure with people walking through due to aggression.

Without enough males, Sherer said, the population suffered.

“We hadn’t had any joeys, from 2015 to 2020 we had no joeys whatsoever," she said. "So, you had all these kangaroos dying off of old age and you have no replacements for them.”

Sherer worked for almost a year and a half on importing kangaroos from a facility in Australia to restore the population. In the last two years, they’ve had 12 joeys and have been able to send kangaroos to other institutions that need them.

Credit PETER DOMINOWSKI / WBOI

Visitors to the kangaroo enclosure at the Fort Wayne zoo may be able to spot the mob’s intact male, where he’s kept in a separate, fenced enclosure during the day. But at night, he’s able to roam the main enclosure with the females and their joeys.

Sherer said they’re working on several projects to better understand the species.

“So, like, right now we’re looking into some of the more common medical issues in all three kangaroo species and wallabies and trying to troubleshoot best practices for that and how we can help other institutions improve the longevity of these species in North America," Sherer said.

One of the biggest difficulties of managing the studbook for the kangaroos, which is a group species made up of one male and multiple females, is determining parentage.

“Especially, if we find, for example, a joey that’s no longer in the pouch and sometimes you can’t even know who mom is," Sherer said. "Or if you have several males in a group.”

Sherer said they’re currently working on a project to collect DNA samples from kangaroos around different zoos in order to create a more precise picture of their genetic background. When a kangaroo goes in for any sort of normal procedure that requires a blood draw, they’re setting a sample aside to be tested later.

Eagleson and Shelley both show a clear passion for the species they each manage, but the positions of studbook manager and SSP coordinator give them the opportunity to not just learn more about each species, but also better advocate for them.

“Anytime that you can convince an institution to try out the species that you’re trying to advocate for, I mean that’s extremely rewarding,” Eagleson said.

It also means the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo can benefit from the knowledge they gather and help other zoos and institutions prosper by keeping these species healthy, diverse and populous.