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Riverbanks Zoo: A Leader in Species Protection

South Carolina Zoo boasts three new tiger cubs as part of its species survival plan.

By John Dixon | August 9 , 2005
Katie Patton, who cares for a large mammals at the Riverbanks Zoo, uses a hose to cool down "Tumpe," on Monday, July 25, 2005, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Mary Ann Chastain/AP Wide World)
Katie Patton, who cares for a large mammals at the Riverbanks Zoo, uses a hose to cool down "Tumpe," on Monday, July 25, 2005, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Mary Ann Chastain/AP Wide World)

One of the nation's premier zoos—the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, South Carolina—is an active partner in the Species Survival Plan. I visited the zoo on a sweltering Tuesday morning. Assistant curator of mammals, Sue Pfaff, gave me a tour and talked about the zoo's part in protecting endangered, threatened, and rare species. She informed me that Riverbanks is home to more than 100 different threatened and endangered species of fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Though a few animals, such as the North American brown bear, are native to North America, most of the animals making their homes at the zoo come from as far away as Africa, Australia, and South America.

Sue's personal favorites are the wild cats, in particular the black-footed cat, the smallest of Africa's wild cats. These guys may be small but they are fierce.

Hunters, poachers, and destruction of habitat have almost wiped out many of these exotic wild animals. Maintaining a healthy and diverse population in captivity may be the only way to preserve the species for reintroduction into the wild when the time and conditions are right.

As part of the Species Survival Plan, Riverbanks staff cooperates with the staffs at other North American zoos to keep the captive populations of rare, endangered, and threatened animals healthy and as genetically diverse as possible. They keep extensive records of each individual animal's pedigree, so that they know which animals they can breed together without weakening the gene pool.

Sue specializes in African lions in captivity. She has extensive records on more than 300 lions, at least two of which call Riverbanks home.

She told me about three female tiger cubs who were recently born at the zoo. She called these superstar cubs her "girls." I did not get to see them because they are not yet ready to meet the public.

Scholastic Reporter John Dixon and Riverbanks Zoo's assistant curator of mammals Sue Pfaff
Scholastic Reporter John Dixon and Riverbanks Zoo's assistant curator of mammals Sue Pfaff discuss two slumbering lionesses making the most of their habitat on a hot July day in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy John Dixon)

Riverbanks also has an extremely rare white alligator in protective custody. It is not on public display. It can only be seen by its keepers until the legal difficulties surrounding its capture can be cleared up. This blue-eyed alligator has no pigmentation, making it poorly suited for survival in the wild. Sue says that the lack of pigmentation is the result of a rare recessive gene combination that likely has also weakened the gator's immune system.

I went into the Gorilla Base Camp for a look at a special educational exhibit, which posts field guide cards that name and describe each animal. Three of my personal favorites in this exhibit were the golden lion tamarinds, the fishing cat, and the crocodile monitor.

As I mentioned before, Riverbanks also houses a botanical garden. This garden contains exhibits of exotic as well common native plants. Gardeners far and wide come to scribble names of rare plants in hopes of procuring some for their personal gardens. Still others come to make note of native plants for purposes of building their own backyard habitat.

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden offers much to the surrounding communities in terms of special activities such as overnight zoo camps and educational programs. The communities love their zoo and give back in many ways. Longtime volunteers, like Sandra, show up weekly to shovel hippo waste. School groups adopt or sponsor an animal and agree to pay for care and upkeep. They also sponsor special fund-raisers, like the upcoming "Spaghetti for Rhinos" dinner.

Riverbanks Zoo is a great place to visit for humans and a safe haven for endangered, threatened, and rare animal species. Visit this exceptional facility in person or on the Web.

About the Author

John Dixon is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

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