A Conversation with Malia Somerville, General Curator at the Buffalo Zoo

Over the past decade and a half, the Buffalo Zoo has made tremendous leaps in exhibitry and animal welfare. However, it has no intention on stopping anytime soon and its animal care staff is dedicated to making it the best zoo it can be. No one knows this better than the Zoo’s General Curator Malia Somerville. Here is her story.

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“I actually grew up in Buffalo and this is my home town,” Somerville said. She went to the zoo growing up years before she ever thought of working there. After moving to Washington D.C. and experimenting with a variety of different careers, Somerville got an internship at the National Zoo. “They had a behavior watch program so I helped with a bunch of different departments,” she recalled. “One of the things I did was do research work on elephant reproductive hormones with Dr. Jeanine Brown, a scientist at their research center.” Soon after she became a keeper aide in a variety of departments before being hired as a fulltime keeper at Beaver Valley, an area which has been redone as American Trail. “That’s where I spent most of my career and focused on North American species,” Somerville added.

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In 2013, she noticed there was a general curator position available at the Buffalo Zoo. “I saw it as a great opportunity as the Zoo was making a lot of new and exciting changes,” Somerville stated. “I have a lot of memories of the zoo over the years and had seen how it evolved over time. Where the Bone Zonel is now used to be a sea lion pool. They used to do elephant and camel rides, which we haven’t had for decades. ” She got the job but remembers; “The previous curator was retiring and spent his entire career there so I was filling big shoes.”

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Malia Somerville takes the well-being of her animals very seriously. “We want to give our animals the best possible care and build naturalistic homes for them with environmental controls and enrichment,” she remarked. The Buffalo Zoo came a long way under the leadership and determination of Dr. Donna Fernandes, who retired recently. “Donna was her for many years and was really excellent in nailing down the funding to get the improvements we needed,” Somerville remarked. “I was really impressed they’d been able to maintain consistent improvement. The Buffalo community is all very supportive of their zoo and are willing to chip in. Donna was a big part of starting that.”

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Somerville’s first major project at the Buffalo Zoo was Arctic Edge, a state-of-the-art environment for polar bears and other Arctic species. “That space previously had very outdated bear grottos built in the Victorian era,” she explained. “It was something that needed to be addressed and we really prioritized what we wanted to do with bears at the Zoo. We decided to focus on polar bears. We’re Arctic Ambassadors for Polar Bear International so we wanted to design a habitat where we could focus on polar bear husbandry and also reach our visitors about Arctic conservation and climate change. We knew we wanted to exceed Manitoba standards and have an exhibit which would be great for decades.”

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Arctic Edge was carefully designed to educate guests about the Arctic ecosystem and inspire them to appreciate its wildlife. A lot of thought was put into how to best represent this environment. “We talked about how there were a lot of different directions we could go,” Somerville recalled. “The Buffalo area has plenty of snow during the winter so we decided to recreate the Arctic during the summer. During the winter it’s covered in snow while during the summer it’s a diverse variety of ground cover and plants. We thought we could do the tundra well knowing our various seasons really give the polar bears diversity.” Not only was this decision a good one in terms of teaching visitors how the Arctic environment changes around the year but it was also conducive to stronger animal welfare. “We specifically wanted our bears on a lot of natural substrate other than concrete,” Somerville added.

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“We give the polar bears a lot of choices as to where they spend their time,” Malia Somerville explained. “We have dens, hills and elevation changes which give them access to privacy. We have saltwater pools since it’s gentler on their skin. We have den space for the females during the breeding season. We have dig pits, sand areas and mulch pits to give them a variety of substrate to use. Our male Sakari likes to sit on top of the berms. The polar bears tend to use their space in different ways at different times of the year.”

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Not only is Arctic Edge one of the largest, most naturalistic and engaging polar bear habitats ever built but it’s also great for the guests. “We give our guests a variety of different experiences,” Somerville said. “We have underwater viewing as well as eye-to-eye viewing to give them a bunch of different angles.” The opening of Arctic Edge has led to increased attendance at the Zoo and has been quite popular.

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However, guests don’t see the top-notch indoor areas the polar bears utilize. “We purposely designed our space to be as flexible as possible,” Somerville said. “The polar bears can access different areas depending on the situation. Inside we have a pool so if they need to be indoors for veterinary care, they’ll still have access to water. We designed the maternity dens so they are enclosed, private and sound proof. This allows the females to feel comfortable if they have babies. The engineers used data about different levels of sunlight in the Arctic to keep their natural cycles. Research has been done about how sound penetrates into bear dens so we’ve used that data to create similar sound dispersion. We tried to give the polar bears everything they need to feel comfortable.”

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The facility also enables state-of-the-art care and research. “We have scales in the chute tunnels so we can get their weights regularly, which is helpful,” Somerville elaborated. “The bears are trained to do a lot of husbandry behaviors, which allows us to participate in research projects. We also have camera throughout the exhibit so we can monitor them remotely. During our first year our older female showed pseudo pregnancy behaviors in a den in front of guests. It was really cool she felt comfortable doing that in front of them.”

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“We partner with college and universities to do a variety of observation projects on polar bears in terms of their use of space and social interactions,” Somerville added. “My predecessor was really interested in polar bear nutrition, which set us up quite well. Our polar bears are on a strictly meat diet with a few bone days. We eliminated the dry food diet and don’t give them a lot of vegetables, which has been successful in maintaining their weight and coat conditions. We’ve always been engaged with polar bear experts in trying to figure out new things.”

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The Buffalo Zoo is hoping to again with breeding success of polar bears with its pair Sakari and Luna. Luna was born at the Zoo in 2013. “Sakari and Luna are young so they’re just at the beginning stages of being sexually mature,” Malia Somerville explained. “They played and bonded with each other pretty quickly, which makes us optimistic. We were surprised they went through a breeding cycle where Sakari was attempting to breed Luna and she was receptive. He didn’t quite figure it out but it was a good sign. Now their hormones are down so they’re bck to normal friends. Luna was hand reared as her mother didn’t care for her so we’re curious what her maternal instincts might be. Luna’s birth was very important in tracking polar bear’s behaviors, hormones and growth as they age and develop.”

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The Buffalo Zoo conveys the plight of polar bears in the Arctic through the interpretive side of Arcitc Edge. “Not only does Arctic Edge inspire you through engaging animal views and up-close experiences but the path leads you to the Arctic Interpretive Center, which focuses on the Arctic environment,” Somerville said. “It talks about the ecosystem, polar bear science, how researchers study them, what you can do to help polar bears and the Arctic and what behaviors you can change to help them, whether it’s buying locally produced food or using transportation that creates less carbon. We take the effort to point out how important these animals are and what we could do to help them. As an Arctic Ambassador Center, we focus on specific dates to raise awareness to Arctic conservation. We take every opportunity to drive that point home with visitors. The revenues we generate from our parking lot go to insitu conservation, which includes supporting Polar Bear International. Several of us have gone with them to Churchill to get training on polar bear biology and messaging.”

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“As general curator, I supervise the entire animal department,” Malia Somerville said of her role. “I help the keepers do their jobs well and provide them the resources they need to give the animals the best care they can. We have everything from large charismatic animals to small insects. I have to have a broad understanding of everything going on. We always strive to do better and meet the best standards we are aware of. We’re always working closely with experts in the field to meet their recommendations. Our staff are divided in five different teams who focus on animals in their area. We also have keepers entirely dedicated to our two Asian elephants.”

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At the moment, the Buffalo Zoo is remodeling its reptile house. “Our reptile house was designed 75 years ago by Marlin Perkins,” Somerville explained. “He was a huge herpetology expert and it was state-of-the-art when it opened. However, the limitations we found were there was no central heating or air. Back then they didn’t pay attention to environmental control like that. What we’re doing is keeping the visitor area true to what it was but demolishing everything from the glass back. This will let us build new habitats and have the ability to control the temperature, water quality and heating."

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“We’re building a space for Komodo dragons, an animal we’re never had before,” Somerville continued. “We’re also going to have conservation pods highlighting the three amphibian programs we participate in. For these we let the visitors see the lab type space where we do rearing and naturalistic habitats to show the amphibians in their native environment. Eventually we’ll reintroduce them to their natural habitat. I’m really looking forward to this and it’s opening in 2018.”Following the remodeled Reptile House will be a naturalistic habitat for the Buffalo Zoo’s family of gorillas, giving them outdoor access for the first time. “We’re going to give them more enrichment opportunities, training and natural space and let them go outdoors when the weather is right,” commented Somerville. Also in the Buffalo Zoo’s future is an area recreating the Himalayas featuring snow leopards, red pandas, cinerous vultures and Asian hoofstock that will overhaul outdated areas of the zoo.

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In the meantime, Malia Somerville and her staff are doing the best they can to enrich the lives of their animals. “For our gorillas, we’ve been working with the nutritionist of the gorilla SSP to closely mimic the diets they’d eat in Africa,” she said. “We give them more leafy greens and other carbohydrates. We structure their feeding patterns so they’re constantly eating. We try to create a bit of Africa for them. Our gorilla troop gets along very well and we have a strong social structure. We’re able to give them all the social interaction they need and they’re engaged with training programs. We partner with primatologists to do research projects with things like puzzle. Practically every hour there is something going on to keep them stimulated.”

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“Our sea lions and otters have the same staff as they specialize in aquatic animals,” Somerville continued. “The sea lions have lots of nooks and crannies so they can get their space. They have a saltwater pool system and recreate the California Coast. Otter Creek recreates a state park vital to the reintroduction of otters in New York in the 1990s.Iit has a lot of creeks, streams and logs. We’ve had success breeding them.”

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“For our elephants, we have keepers who work with them all day and they have prioritized giving them as much enrichment as possible,” Somerville stated. “Even when they can’t go outside, they’re getting mental and physical stimulation through training and have access to different stalls. Our veterinary staff is really engaged with our animals as they check our elephant’s feet every week and are working on cardiac health for gorillas. We also have a very successful breeding program with the endangered Indian rhinoceros.”

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One of the Buffalo Zoo’s signature exhibits is M & T Bank Rainforest Falls, which recreates a tropical rainforest in Venezuela. “It was designed to look like a national park in Venezuela and tell its stories,” Somerville said. “We recreate the environmental conditions of Venezuela and can control the heat and temperature throughout the winters. We simulate rainforest as you’d experience in a rainforest, which is great for the animals. We always do things like provide opportunities for the tamanduas to climb and anthills for the anteaters. We have keepers just focused on the rainforest so they can give the animals their full attention. They do a lot with the primates in terms of enrichment and training to keep them stimulated.”

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Nothing is more important to the Buffalo zoo than animal welfare. “Animal welfare is something that people have always known about but the role of it is definitely evolving as we move forward,” Somerville reflected. “It’s our first priority when we make any decision. We follow the five freedoms of animal welfare- access to nutrition, social structure, environmental conditions, freedom from stress and safety. We go through these options when considering any choice. We also make sure to understand the natural history of our animals. Our animal keepers have a diverse position as they don’t just do the feeding and cleaning but give animals everything the animals need and care about what their life is like in a 24 hour clock. They make sure they have the best choices and we know how to interpret that.”

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“I hope our visitors appreciate what we do to give the best animal welfare we can,” Malia Somerville said. “We hope they take the time to think about the role these animals play as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. We’re special in that we’re a smaller zoo in a local community so we really focus on the needs of our guests and giving them a diverse experience. We have limitations but we make the best of it. The Zoo has been here so long we’re really a part of the Buffalo community from start to finish. We have so many visitors who support us and have learned and grown with the zoo. I’m proud we’d had such an impact and are continuing to evolve every day.”

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“The most challenging part of being a curator is balancing everybody’s interests and needs,” she concluded. “We always put the animals first but we need to balance that with the visitor experience and needs of our staff. For instance, sometimes it’s hard for visitors to see the polar bears but we need to give them a diverse amount of choices. I think at the end of the day most people understand that. A couple thanked me for what we’ve been doing. The rewarding side for me is seeing our animals have a really great day. When we opened Arctic Edge, Luna rolled around in the dirt and jumped in the pool. That was really rewarding. It was a huge project so to see the animals out there enjoying that space was great. We also just had an addax calf so seeing her running and jumping around is very special.”

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