ABQ BioPark staff said they were amazed by the hospitality of the people they met at the Abidjan Zoo.
“As long as I attempted French, they were very willing to help me engage,” said Lindsey Eagan. “It’s amazing to me how well they manage on so little and how giving they were to us just for smiling and attempting to speak French.”
There were a series of gift exchanges between BioPark staff and Abidjan Zoo staff and volunteers.
Josh Davis threw his ABQ BioPark hat off one day in the midst of working. Later, he noticed that one of the zoo employees proudly wore the hat throughout the day. Before he left Abidjan, Davis gifted the hat to that employee.
Chaz Moxley also had a special exchange with a local grounds keeper, who gifted him a carved elephant. In exchange, Moxley gave him a red BioPark hat that matched the one he wore for the trip.
Photo: ABQ BioPark staff received handmade, custom shirts and dresses, courtesy of the wife of an Abidjan Zoo volunteer.
11/2/2016 - Using a tree stump as a medical table and gripping a needle that seemed comparatively large to the juvenile crocodiles from which it would be extracting blood, Matt Eschenbrenner’s nerves were high.
His task was to draw blood on dozens of juvenile crocodiles at the Abidjan Zoo, a facility in Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa.
“We got the first one right away and we got this swell of confidence,” said Eschenbrenner, Zookeeper Supervisor at the ABQ BioPark Zoo.
The ABQ BioPark has been partnering with the zoo since 2014 to help save the critically endangered West African slender-snouted crocodile and made its third trip to the facility in September. Eschenbrenner was joined by Senior Zookeeper Josh Davis, Lead Aquarist Kim Ward, Senior Zookeeper Chaz Moxley and Senior Zookeeper Lindsey Eagan.
In 2015, BioPark staff examined juvenile crocodiles that had recently hatched at the zoo. The crocs were extremely low on iodized calcium, so BioPark staff wrote dietary protocols to help improve their health. It worked–since last year's visit, the crocodiles' iodized calcium levels have increased significantly. In fact, Eschenbrenner said that the crocs could see a wild release in the next year.
The Abidjan Zoo has also worked to improve the living arrangements of both juvenile and adult crocodiles since the BioPark’s last visit. They recently opened a new exhibit for the juvenile slender-snouted crocs and have cleaned up the crocodile digs by keeping the area free of garbage. “That’s a little thing, but in the long run it can make a difference,” said Eschenbrenner.
The zoo also finished a multi-year construction project that gives the adult crocodiles access to a new ramp into their pool area, which is reducing injuries (previously, the crocodiles had to scale a wall to get to the water). This project started before the ABQ BioPark's first visit in 2014.
Over the last three visits, the ABQ BioPark has sent a member from almost every department to Abidjan, creating an opportunity to employ a whole-zoo approach.
This year, Lindsey Eagan taught animal training and enrichment to local keepers. Eagan helped staff discover new ways to motivate Judith, an overweight and probably diabetic chimp, to get moving. She also guided staff on working with the zoo’s elephant.
While Eagan is optimistic, she noted that her job was challenging. Côte d'Ivoire—and the Abidjan Zoo—are still recovering from an almost decade-long pair of civil wars, and zoo employees are sparsely compensated.
“In an area where value on human life is so little, convincing them that playing with animals is a good thing was very difficult,” said Eagan.
Chaz Moxley led an animal inventory, which not only gives the BioPark a better idea of what is located there, but also what endangered species they hold. In all, the zoo has three endangered animals—West African slender-snouted crocodiles, Pygmy hippos and dwarf crocodiles. The Abidjan Zoo could potentially get additional funding opportunities because they house endangered species. Moxley also said that the BioPark and the Abidjan Zoo stay in constant contact with each other, so the inventory will be helpful in addressing any medical or husbandry questions Abidjan employees may have for BioPark staff throughout the year.
Other projects included fixing existing water filtration systems and building a new one, administering health exams, writing protocols, calibrating crocodile incubators and constructing new croc catchpoles.
Some of the projects required improvisation, staff said. Kim Ward designed a filtration system for the Pygmy hippos that consisted of plastic trash cans, zipties and a serving tray from a local store. “The littlest things that we’re so used to were not available,” said Ward.
Josh Davis agreed. “The most frustrating part was going out (into the city) to find supplies,” he said. During these outings, staff dealt with language barriers (residents of Côte d'Ivoire speak French) and wall-to-wall traffic. While there was not much they could do about traffic, staff found creative ways to overcome the language barrier, using body language and even drawings.
Still, Ward said the trip was an excellent opportunity to learn. “It’s so important for everyone to be exposed to such a multicultural, multinational environment,” she said.
Davis echoed her sentiment. "I was happy to be part of the team this year," he said. "It was an eye-opening experience."
Eschenbrenner called it a breakthrough year when it came to building relationships. The entire crew visited with U.S. Embassy staff, including the acting ambassador, to talk about the partnership and the state of the Abidjan Zoo. He hopes that embassy staff will take initiative with the zoo’s plight.
BioPark staff also met with the chief of staff from the country’s Ministry of Wildlife about wildlife issues in Côte d'Ivoire.
Eagan said such meetings made her more confident in her abilities as a zookeeper.
“It’s humbling to have them look at you as a professional and value your viewpoint on something as important as global conservation,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful to having been given this opportunity. It’s been incredibly rewarding and utterly amazing.”
Eschenbrenner agreed. “Your opinion can make a difference on a national level. Every zookeeper at heart is an adventurer. They want to make a difference. There, you truly feel like you make a difference.”
Moxley added, "It's such a worthy cause and hopefully we can keep this going. It really does feel like we're affecting some positive change when we're there."
Next year Eschenbrenner hopes to bring the Abidjan keepers to Albuquerque.
“Seeing those guys here walking around the BioPark would be huge.”
Images from the ABQ BioPark's 2016 trip.