Advanced technology helps Pittsburgh Zoo staff monitor animals - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Azizi, a 16-year-old eastern black rhinoceros, delivered a calf on Wednesday at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, her second calf since 2014. Staff who would ordinarily have been on baby watch on site, handing off at two-hour intervals through the night, instead were able to watch from home.

The zoo has 49 cameras trained on various animals, depending on need, all with levels of accuracy that its staff say has revolutionized animal monitoring.

Camera technology has made daytime images so precise that keepers, veterinarians and curators who have been monitoring animals remotely for years not only can see greater details for troubleshooting problems but they also may see behaviors they might never have seen or known before.

The zoo does not provide these images for the public.

Pending births are just one reason for monitoring animals. If an animal has an injury, health or behavioral problems, staff can check in anytime, from anywhere, on their computers, tablets or mobile phones.

The clarity of these cameras is amazing, said Kathy Suthard, a rhino and lion keeper. On her computer screen one recent afternoon before the female calf was born, she watched Azizi wander into a room adjacent to her indoor pen. See the baby move? she said, pointing at the belly.

The movement looked like a ripple on a lake.

Nighttime images are not nearly as clear or precise and they are in black and white, but they are informative.

In the past, said zoo spokesman Tracy Gray, we had grainy day images and the night images were blobs.

Technology that has improved cameras also has made them much less expensive, by hundreds of dollars per device, said Kevin Carothers, the zoos information technology manager.

Ken Kaemmerer, the curator of mammals, shifts among frames to watch several animals in real time as he works in his office. One morning, he watched Azizi being intent on the bottom of the frame. Suddenly, a blue sleeve shot into view. Keeper Diane Hagey had thrown a stick. Azizi fetched it.

Most animals are trained. It stimulates them but it also makes them compliant when staff needs to draw blood or inspect their mouths and their feet, Mr. Kaemmerer said.

He clicked a panel to spy on two lions in their pen. One lay on his side, the other sat on his haunches, seemingly dozing.

Lazy lions, he said of the litter mates Razi and Ajani. Our two boys.

An hour later, Ms. Suthard opened the staff-only door to visitors. In their cages, the cat brothers swung their heads up as if jerked by chains.

A camera is trained on Razi because, although he is not even 8 and in his prime, he has seizures, the cause of which is not known. It took about two months to train him to lie down so the veterinary staff could coax his tail out from his cage in order to draw blood.

The tail has a lot of good veins in it, and the blood tests help us control the epilepsy, said veterinarian Ginger Sturgeon, the zoos director of animal care.

The first time he seized, I happened to be here, Ms. Suthard said. Most interesting was his brothers reaction the first time. Ajani ran out of the room. I didnt notice that because I was so focused on Razi, but I saw it later on film. The next time Razi had a seizure, Ajani was on film trying to play with him, rub him, stimulate him like come on, come on! He knew something was wrong.

Animal injuries that once might have been elusive also are easier to locate because infrared cameras have become sharper and less expensive.

If an animal is limping, we can see when it happened and what caused it, Mr. Kaemmerer said. Before, the vet would palpate to try to find it, but the camera shows exactly where the inflammation is.

In recent weeks, cameras have been trained on the red pandas because their breeding season is approaching. The film sequence at 6:45 a.m. on March 6, just after dawn, showed one chasing the other through their exhibit.

The No.1-selling plush toy in the zoos gift shop, the red panda got its name because, like the giant panda, it eats bamboo and can hold a bamboo stalk between its thumb and its paw. They arent otherwise related, Mr. Kaemmerer said.

The red panda looks like a cross between a chow puppy and a raccoon. It blows the top off the cuteness meter. Conversely, rhinos dont draw coos or cries of awwww from visitors, but the people who take care of them know how precious they are.

They are so smart, Ms. Suthard said. People think because they look prehistoric they arent [smart]. But they are easily trained and learn fast. Her eyes got misty. And if I had grandkids, theyd never see them in the wild.

Both black and white rhinos are endangered. Azizis calf is the third to have been born in North American zoos since last year. The Northern white has three specimens left, under guard in Kenya. They have all suffered habitat loss and have been poached for their horns for export to Asia, where rumors about their medicinal value have made rhino head harvesting lucrative. The horns are actually similar to very tough toenails.

Conservators in the zoos projects in Africa think they might be able to turn the tide on rhino killing, encouraging locals to see that conservation makes tourism a more sustainable livelihood, said Joe Gaspard, director of science and conservation.

People will pay to see them and take their pictures, he said.

Camera technology is giving wildlife conservators better tools for monitoring animals in the field, too, through what they call critter cams that are attached to the animal with a collar.

For instance, tree kangaroos live so high up in foliage that only a collar camera can reveal how they behave and react to what they see, Mr. Kaemmerer said, adding, We can see the world as they see it.

Cameras are installed after wild animals are darted. When they come to and move off, they shouldnt know they are wearing anything. The camera should be less than 5 percent of the animals body weight so it doesnt affect the natural behavior, he said.

Dr. Sturgeon said the best technology still depends on the correct human interpretations of the information it provides. Radiology is digital, making dip tanks unnecessary. Ultrasound probes now come in seven sizes. Endoscopes are flexible. Surgical lights are all LED bulbs. All of these advances provide sharper images

But it always comes down to having a great technician by my side and the power of observation, she said. I depend on technology every day, but I dont check in on the monitors much.

Dr. Sturgeon said having the cameras were a big benefit to zoo staff as they monitored Azizi throughout her pregnancy.

Azizis my girl, she said, smiling. She always seems glad to see me, and I whisper the same thing in her ear: I love you mama.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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