2016's top stories of conservation, cuteness and care

December 12, 2016 - 12:23pm

From a tough-as-nails California condor to a playful young polar bear, 2016 was a big year for conservation, animal welfare and general adorableness at the Oregon Zoo. Here's a look back at 10 of the year's most memorable stories.

1. Home-grown condor makes history in California

The offspring of an Oregon Zoo-raised condor chick became the first wild-hatched California condor in more than a century to survive, leave its nest and soar among the majestic rock formations in Pinnacles National Park. The zoo has raised more than 40 wild-bound California condors since joining the federal effort to save this critically endangered species in 2003. The first of those birds — hatched in 2004 and dubbed Kun-Wak-Shun, or "Thunder and Lightning" — is the father of this year's history-making fledgling. Read more.

2. Playful polar bear Nora arrives

Nora, a young polar bear who has captivated much of the country since her birth at the Columbus Zoo in 2015, moved to the Oregon Zoo in September. When Nora's mother began leaving her unattended in the den for prolonged periods of time, Columbus keepers made the difficult decision to hand-rear the cub. She weighed about 1 pound when her human caregivers began raising her; she now weighs more than 200 pounds. Read more.

3. Zoo establishes $1 million fund for elephant conservation

In July, the Oregon Zoo Foundation established a $1 million endowment fund supporting Asian elephant conservation. "Now we have a permanent, self-sustaining source of funds specifically dedicated to making a direct and positive impact on Asian elephants," said Dr. Don Moore, Oregon Zoo director. "We're drawing a line in the sand to make sure Asian elephants don't go extinct." Read more.

4. Inmates join effort to recover endangered NW turtle

Fourteen western pond turtles reared at the zoo were returned to the Columbia River Gorge this May — part of a 25-year head-start program aimed at bringing this Northwest native back from the brink of extinction. This year though, some additional turtles — and some new helping hands — joined the release. Conservation technicians from Larch Corrections Center had been providing daily care for nine adult turtles recovering from shell disease. All nine were deemed fit for return to the Gorge, and for the first time, caregivers from Larch were able to participate in the annual release. Read more.

5. Rare montane fox kits caught on video for first time

In April, a camera trap made possible through the zoo's Future for Wildlife program captured footage from a rare Sierra Nevada red fox den, the first one ever documented in the region. "It's the first time that pups have been recorded on video," said Jon Nelson, wildlife curator at the High Desert Museum. It's also about as cute as an infrared camera-trap video can get. In the brief clip, a trio of fuzzy kits — estimated to be about a month old — romp and wrestle, while their alert, bushy-tailed parents keep watch around them. Read more.

6. Zoo welcomes ringtail babies with Yoda-like ears

Two new ringtail babies, with long striped tails and Yoda-like ears, were born at the zoo's Great Northwest area this June. Born mostly hairless, the sprightly kits now bear the same raccoon-like patterns as their mom, Violet, who was rescued from the rafters of a Texas resort last year. Keepers were able to prep for the kits' arrival — and help ensure a successful delivery for the first-time mom — thanks to a heads-up from the zoo's Wildlife Endocrine Lab, which noted a steep, steady rise in Violet's progesterone, indicating possible pregnancy. Read more.

7. Birth of endangered piglet prompts squeals of joy

A young Visayan warty pig — a species considered among the most endangered on the planet — prompted squeals of joy from zoo visitors this summer, frolicking alongside his mom and climbing atop his pop. Born June 9, the piglet resembled "a little watermelon with legs," according to senior keeper Julie Christie. While adult warty pigs have coarse gray hair, piglets are born with brown and yellow stripes, a camouflage pattern that fades after about a year. "There are probably fewer than 300 of these animals left in the entire world," Christie said. "So each birth is really something to celebrate." Read more.

8. Zoo takes in Chupacabra from streets of Eugene

A Chupacabra moved into town this spring, quickly making himself at home in the carnivore ward of the zoo's veterinary medical center. Unlike the bloodthirsty creature of folklore, however, this Chupacabra is a vegetarian. "Chupacabra is his name, but actually he's a Patagonian mara, native to Argentina," said Tanya Paul, Oregon Zoo program animal supervisor. The extra-large, long-legged rodent was found roaming the streets of Eugene in May, and the Greenhill Humane Society arranged for his transfer to the zoo since the species requires specialized care. Read more.

9. Science confirms: Zoo's on the right track with Elephant Lands

In July, a special collection of peer-reviewed scientific research articles confirmed what thousands of Oregon Zoo visitors had already seen: Elephant Lands, the visionary new home for Portland's beloved pachyderms, represents a huge leap forward for animal welfare. The collection, drawn from a comprehensive study of North American zoos, was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. "Our plans for Elephant Lands were already in motion when the results came out," said elephant curator Bob Lee. "But it's great to get that scientific validation for what we're doing." Read more.

10. Chimp turns videographer with zoo's GoPro enrichment

Chloe, the oldest of the zoo's four chimpanzees, gave animal-care staff and YouTube fans an insider's look the zoo and its renowned enrichment program. Taking charge of a GoPro placed inside her habitat by keepers, Chloe turned documentarian, chronicling the day's events. The 47-year-old chimp had previously experimented with the camera function on iPads. Zoo primate keeper Colleen Reed coordinates Orangutan Outreach's "Apps for Apes" program, using technology to provide stimulating enrichment for orangs and chimps. Read more.