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Five Sharks For A Seal? Pittsburgh Zoo Curator Explains How Animals Are Traded

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA
Two sand tiger sharks swim past each other at the PPG Aquarium on Wednesday, July 13, 2016. The sharks were sent south to mate as part of a regular animal exchange between zoos and aquariums.

Last July, the Pittsburgh Zoo sent five sand tiger sharks to a Florida marine park to mate. When they left, a northern elephant seal named Coolio was brought to Pittsburgh to take their place.

This happens with zoos all the time—they trade and loan animals depending on their population’s needs. The person who oversees and coordinates the movements of animals is Ken Kaemmerer, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s curator of mammals.  

Kaemmerer, who has been in Pittsburgh for seven of his 35 years working in zoos, said he has always been interested in animals. After switching his major from aeronautical engineering to biology at Purdue University, he went for his master’s in zoology at Southern Illinois University.

90.5 WESA’s Katie Blackley sat down with Kaemmerer to talk about selecting and breeding animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo. 

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium curator of mammals Ken Kaemmerer in his office on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. Kaemmerer traces his love for zoos back to his grandmother taking him to the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

What he likes about his position:

One of the things that really appealed to me about being a curator was that a curator manages a collection of animals and they need to be knowledgeable in many different species. And you’re not only working with animals that are in your collection, but also animals in the wild and people that are working to save them in the wild. So that’s what attracted me to being a curator and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.

Introducing a new animal:

Usually we try to narrow down, what is the main purpose of the exhibit or what is the theme, so to speak.

Based on our knowledge and experiences, we come up with a whole palette of species—everything from something very small to something very large. What will fit into the area that we're trying to exhibit them? Is this species the right temperament for our climate? How does one obtain them? Do you obtain them from other institutions? Do you obtain them from another part of the world? Do you obtain them from the wild? Do we have a basis of information on them from medical to how to be taken care of in in captivity? All of those things.

Also, what kind of space do they need? Is it 100 square feet per animal? Is it 1,000 square feet? It depends on the animal. It's not always size dependent. It may be a smaller animal, but it's incredibly active and if it doesn't have that space then it's stressed.

You’ve got to know all of that and put it all together. And you're in a room with other people including the director, the education curator, the person in charge of maintenance, the graphics people.

So, oftentimes a tug of war to decide what it is that you're going to be able to do well, present to the public and have a meaningful impact."

Loaning and trading animals with other zoos:

Deciding on how many animals of a species to get depends on how big of a space you’ve got and the species’ social organization. Do they have just a family group?

For example, our Siamang primates that we got for the island, they live in a small family mated group. So, you’re just going to get a male and a female to start with and hopefully they will start their own family group.

But our Visayan warty pigs, they tend to live in a herd. We got in three females at first and we just got in a male from another zoo. We’ve just introduced them and, of course, we’re hoping to have babies. So they have one or two babies, each animal. So we may go from three and now, we’re up to four. Who knows? This summer we may be up to six, 10, whatever.

Also, we got in two clouded leopards.  They’re young and unrelated, so we’re breeding them right now and we hope to have a litter that can stay with them for a year or two. After a while, one or two of those may be requested to go to another zoo to start a new breeding pair.

Nearly every species has its own type of committee to help manage them. We work with every zoo that has one of those species in their collections. We loan or trade animals from zoo to zoo from all around the U.S. and, sometimes, the world.

Upcoming exhibits at the zoo:

In May of 2017, we’ll open our latest exhibit: Jungle Odyssey.  It’s set up to lead you through on a trail.

The first exhibit are giant anteaters and capybaras. There will be a boardwalk that you can almost get into the exhibit with them.

From there is the ocelot. Actually, that’s a species near and dear to my heart because I’ve been working on conservation for ocelots for the last 25 years

Beside that will be an exhibit for fossa. The final exhibit, as we climb up the hill, will be pygmy hippo. That’s going to be a neat anima. I haven’t worked with them before.

The other neat thing is that there is going to be a jungle zip line that goes through the middle of this. Of course, we’ve got a number of things going on, but that’s one of the things we’re really looking forward to."

(Photo via Zoe Sears/flickr)

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community. kblackley@wesa.fm