Grizzlies, Pandas and Polar Bears Oh My!: A Conversation with Courtney Janney, Curator of Large Mamm

For the past quarter of the century, the Memphis Zoo has undergone a major renaissance and blossomed into being a world-class zoo. This was propelled by the opening of Cat Country in 1993, which took the Zoo’s felines from living on concrete and behind bars to roaming naturalistic, open-aired habitats filled with grass, trees and water and plenty of opportunities to climb, prowl, hide and swim. Over the next two decades, the majority of the zoo was transformed-most notably with the opening of China (one of only four zoo in the U.S. to house giant pandas), Northwest Passage (polar bears, black bears and sea lions) and Teton Trek (grizzly bears, wolves and elk.) The pinnacle of this expansion was Zambezi River Hippo Camp, which opened last year and provides a state-of-the-art facility for the Zoo’s iconic hippos. None of this would be possible without the Zoo’s excellent staff. One of its superstars is Courtney Janney, one of the Zoo’s curator of large mammals. Here is her story.

@ Courtney Janney

Janney began her career in zoos with internships in animal care at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “Originally I thought I wanted to go to vet school, but through the internships, I learned I was much more interested in animal care,” she said. Soon Janney was hired as a keeper at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, where guests can stay overnight and see giraffes, zebras and a variety of antelope and birds right outside their window. “I really wanted to work with carnivores but was working with hoofstock and birds,” she recalled. “However, I fell in love with the people and the lodge. The lodge was definitely a crash course in animal care since it had over 32 species and was a place where animals were visible go the public 24 hours a day.”

@ Courtney Janney

After five years at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Janney was hired to work at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. She started working at the Zoo’s hospital, but soon transitioned toe the animal care team at the zoo’s magnificent Asia Trail, home to giant pandas, sloth bears, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters, fishing cats and Japanese salamanders. It is often thought of as being one of the best, most naturalistic immersion exhibits in the nation and educates visitors about the need to protect Asia’s endangered animals.

@ Smithsonian

“I met the Asia Trail team by raising a red panda with the vet team,” Janney said. “Who you work with is much more important than what you work with. I’ve always loved big cats but they’re one of the only big taxa I haven’t worked with. I fell in love with the people on Asia Trail.” Janney also fell in love with the animals of Asia Trail. “I never had an interest in working with bears but I fell head over heels for the sloth bears,” she explained. “They’re super intelligent like orangutans but silly like dogs. I was very interested in working with clouded leopards and fishing cats but also fell in love with the otters and red pandas.”

@ Smithsonian

Even though the giant pandas are the icons of the National Zoo, Janney initially was not drawn to work with them. “I always rolled my eyes to the animals given the most attention, as I think many keepers do,” she recalled. “At D.C. it was the giant pandas who everyone asked about and wanted to see. However, I was fortunate to be trained to work with the pandas by experienced people who adored them. I couldn't help but fall for them- I was so lucky to be part of the team working with Mei Xiang when Bao Bao was born."

@ Smithsonian

A major focus of the Asian Trail team was on enrichment. “We revamped the enrichment program while I was there, and that informed a lot of the thoughts and expectations I’ve brought to Memphis,” Janney elaborated. “I think of enrichment as behavior- what behaviors are you trying to encourage? Enrichment was the standard, not the extra or afterthought. The sloth bears had, and still do have, an incredible enrichment program at the National Zoo. All the food the sloth bears receive during the day was received in some form of enrichment- whether through a feeder, a termite mound, buried in a pit or hung in a tree. The bears always have to look and search for food. I’ve never seen a bear indoor space as big as National’s. You’d have thought it was for great apes with all the toys hanging from the walls! The primary bear keepers taught me a lot about enrichment and helped keep us at very high standards.”

@ Smithsonian

While Janney had no intent on moving or leaving the National Zoo, one day her boss came in suggesting she apply for a curator job at the Memphis Zoo. “It was a huge variety of animals- including many I had no experience with,” she said. “I thought she was crazy, but I applied just hoping to get an interview. I had never interviewed for a management level position so I thought the phone interview would be a good opportunity to learn. However, I went off the phone dying for this job. I knew the guy interviewing me would be a great leader to work with and, after visiting the Zoo, I was blown away by the facilities and the people. I didn’t have half the qualifications for the job but I knew I could learn..” Janney got the job and became Curator of Large Mammals at the Memphis Zoo.

@ Memphis Zoo

One of the biggest learning curves for Janney was working with elephants for the first time. “I never wanted to work with elephants at either Disney or National because there were other teams I was more interested in working with,” she explained. “Elephant keepers tend to focus just on elephants, and I wasn’t really interested in specializing like that.” Soon though, she became impressed with how intelligent and amazing the zoo’s African elephants were and what a great program the Memphis Zoo had established and maintained.

@ Memphis Zoo

“The elephants here are incredibly well care for,” Janney elaborated. “We have modernized important parts of our facilities. We nearly doubled the amount of space they have and got rid of the moat, replacing it with cables. At night, we gives the elephants access to the rhino habitat, nearly doubling their space. We participated in the AZA’s study on elephant welfare and our elephants are in good shape. They are fit and don’t exhibit stereotypic behaviors. Our keepers provide a great life for our elephants, We bath and exercise them daily and work hard to provide and enriching day.”

@ Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo boasts state-of-the-art facilities for grizzly bears, polar bears and black bears. “The new habitats have much more space, way more opportunities for the bears to exhibit natural behaviors and much better viewing for the guests,” Janney said. Perhaps the best of the bunch of Teton Trek, which recreates the forests of Yellowstone National Park and features a state-of-the-art home for grizzly bears.

@ Memphis Zoo

“Teton Trek has a huge giant waterfall, a huge river and two different pools for swimming,” Janney commented. “Our grizzly bear habitat is huge. We have two different groups of grizzlies which we rotate. here they can graze (most people don’t realize they do that), dig, swim and it's big enough that the bears can hang out together or have some alone time. You actually feel like you’re in Yellowstone- it’s beautifully done.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Polar bears also live in a very nice space. “We have added different types of soil to the habitat so there’s a gravel pit, sand pit and mulch pit,” Janney explained. “The polar bears love digging and creating day beds in those pits. We have two chilled pools for them to swim in and rocks that stay warm in the winter and cold during the summer. We give the polar bears access to the air-conditioned indoor area to cool down if they please.” Additionally the zoo’s black bears sometimes have access to the polar bear habitat to provide them a different experience and keep them curious and active.

@ Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo is currently working to try to take part in polar bear breeding. “We have a male and a female who breed every year but have not conceived yet,” Janney commented. “We are trying to figure out if the female is able to carry a fetus or if they’re not actually breeding correctly. We’ve done some semen collection on the male and reproductive studies on the female. We might try artificial insemination. We’re trying to give the female as much control over her life as possible to cut down on any stressors or unnecessary anxiety. We’ve made some changes to her den so hopefully that will continue to encourage appropriate den behavior.”

@ Memphis Zoo

One of Courtney's major focus points has been involves the behavior of the Zoo's two bears. “We change factors in our bear’s lives to ensure appropriate natural behaviors,” she explained. “We find giving the bears the option to go inside/off exhibit whenever they choose helps a lot. We spend a great deal of time talking to polar bear experts at other zoos since polar bears can be such complex animals. One of our keepers received a grant that will allow us to try time feeders with our polar bears. This will introduce variety and unpredictability to food delivery in their day- we've very eager to see how this impacts their behavior."

@ Memphis Zoo

“Everything we do with all our bears is based on encouraging appropriate natural behaviors,” Janney stated. “We watch them closely.” A key way Janney’s animal care staff promotes positive behavior in bears is through enrichment. “The key word to enrichment is variety,” she elaborated. “We try to offer as varied of enrichment as possible throughout the day. Almost all enrichment is meant to encourage natural behaviors and change their day up. We consider bears as intelligent as primates.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Another key way natural behavior and welfare is promoted for the bears is through training. “We train for husbandry, medical purposes and mental stimulation,” Janney said. “We train our bears to present all of their body parts. They all open their mouths so we can see their teeth. They present their ears, eyes, noses, paws, hips, etc. We’re training a number of our bears to allow us to voluntarily draw blood using either blood sleeves or head cages.”

@ Memphis Zoo

For grizzly, polar and black bears, Janney’s staff carefully considers their diets and nutrition. “We work with the nutrition department and approach the bears' diets season by season,” she said. “Our black and grizzly bears don’t hibernate, but I’m sure they would if we set up their conditions that way. We feed them all year long and try to replicate the types of food they’d be finding in the wild. They get lots of fruits and large quantities of food in the summer while they get smaller amounts of food more centered around protein in the winter. We give the polar bears more food right before breeding season and put on the bulk of their weight right after. That’s when we give them 25-30 pounds of fish a day. We increase the greens after that and cut back on protein as it begins to get warm out.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Janney also oversees the Zoo’s California sea lions. “The sea lions were new to me since I had no marine mammal experience,” she explained. “The keepers are actually teaching me a bit of sea lion training right now. They’re a lot of fun, but they’re so smart and so quick to learn they can be a challenge. Sea lions can get up to 'no good' very quickly and they’re really social. We had a group of five for a number of years but just brought in three more females last year. My team did an incredible job working their way through introductions as well as training three very naive animals enough behaviors to be able to go in with them, shift them and start to work with them in sea lion shows."

@ Memphis Zoo

Like the National Zoo, the Memphis Zoo is one of only four zoos in the U.S. with giant pandas. They live in CHINA, an immersive exhibit which transports visitors to the country and recreates its architecture and environments. “The giant pandas are a creature to themselves,” Janney said. “They’re technically bears but eat nothing but bamboo- a type of grass. The giant pandas are a nice niche market in terms of animal care and behavior- they have very specific diets and needs. Dealing with the political side of having pandas is really unique and challenging. This is all on top of the challenges of actually managing them, breeding them and feeding them!”

@ Memphis Zoo

Janney is also in charge of the care of the Memphis Zoo’s wide variety of primates including three species of great apes. “No only do we have gorillas and orangutans, but we’re one of only seven institutions in the nation with bonobos,” she pointed out. “I’ve really fallen in love with the apes. The orangutans very calm and logical. We have a baby boy right now, which is amazing. The gorillas can be incredibly intimating to me, but the keepers do a phenomenal job working with them. The bonobos are so intelligent, gregarious and athletic but they’re so silly too. Three of the four have had babies since I’ve been here, which adds an amazing element to the group. it’s incredible to see them as mothers and helping to take care of each other’s young. “

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

Not only do the Zoo’s primates have nice homes in Primate Canyon, but also the zoo has an excellent primate care staff. “The primate keepers do an incredible job with enrichment and training,” Janney praised. “We ended having to do a C-section with our mother orangutan and hand-rear her baby for 11 days before introducing him back to his mother. It was thanks largely to the keepers' relationship with the animals that the whole process was so successful. Now our baby is 100% raised by his mother and will have a great chance to contribute to the species himself in the future!"

@ Memphis Zoo

Janney also returned to working with hoofed animals in Memphis as she supervises African hoofstock and is currently the North America studbook keeper for bongos. “It’s fun getting to do them again since that’s how I started my career,” she said. “We’ve had three baby giraffes born since I’ve been here. Our giraffe herd is doing well and we have a team that works really hard. With regards to how smart giraffes are, anybody who has worked with giraffes knows they are very good at being giraffes. They all know the 'giraffe stare.' Their two goals are don’t get eaten and join the herd. One time the giraffes would stop going into their barn they went in every single day- turns out it was because a ladder had been moved and they found that scary! However, you can get them to walk through a chute or onto a scale or stand for a voluntary blood draw. Working with giraffes taught me a lot about setting up an environment for successful training and figuring out an animal's motivation. If you know what motivates an animal you can probably figure out how to teach them something. ”

@ Memphis Zoo

Courtney Janney is very happy working as Curator of Large Mammals at the Memphis Zoo and takes great pride in the Zoo. “The most difficult part of being a curator is the unpredictability of the day,” she reflected. “If I come in wanting to get something done and there’s a curve ball and often I simply walk into chaos. I never know what facility, animal health or personnel issue might arise. The most rewarding part of my job is that I get to influence the welfare of such a large and varied collection of animals. I also feel like I’m helping to build and shape leaders in the field who are going to continue to make things better for animals.”

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

“What makes the Memphis Zoo so amazing is the amount of community support we receive here,” Janney said. “About 25-30 years ago individuals mapped out a plan to build Memphis into a world class zoo and we did just that. It could not have been done without community support. The folks in Memphis have remained proud of our Zoo. The facilities we have been able to build for our animals and the talent keepers provide have helped us give our residents the best lives possible. The science of animal care has evolved and the Memphis Zoo has been at the forefront of many of these changes.”

@ Memphis Zoo

#MemphisZoo #NationalZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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