9 Quirky Zoo Residents You Need to Meet

From pot-bellied pigs to playful orangutans, each animal has a story.

Photos by Olaf Growald
Not only does the Fort Worth Zoo, ranked fifth in the nation, draw nearly 1 million guests each year; it also guarantees for future generations the survival of certain endangered species and strengthens the bond between humans and animals. We got up close and personal with a few of its wildest residents.


Three unrelated juvenile lions journeyed from a wildlife refuge in South Africa and arrived at the Fort Worth Zoo in 2012. Zookeepers named the male lion Jabulani, meaning “come bring happiness to everyone,” and the females are Saba (the number seven) and Abagebe (“the one long expected”). What makes these cats significant is their genetic makeup. “These lions are unrelated to other lions in the U.S. and provide an entirely new bloodline, which brings hope for a future of this species that is now endangered,” says Holly Kelton, mammal supervisor of Asian Falls. Over the past two decades, the world’s lion population has shrunk nearly 30 percent, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to label them a vulnerable species. Jabulani and Abagebe produced their first litter of cubs in 2015. “The personalities greatly differ between these three. Jabulani is really laid back and just goes with the flow. Saba is more playful. Abagebe used to be playful but has become more serious after becoming a mother,” Kelton says.

Natural Habitat: Grasslands and semi-arid plains in sub-Saharan Africa
Life Span: Up to 30 years in captivity
Zoo Diet: Ground meat and whole prey
Numbers in the Wild: Fewer than 20,000
Fun Fact: Jabulani, Saba and Abagebe love to play. They enjoy boomer balls and ice blocks with meat or jerky in the center.


Tracing its ancestry back to the dinosaurs, gharial crocodiles are some of the most nimble crocodiles in the world. Their tail seems overdeveloped and is laterally flattened, more so than other crocodiles, which enables it to achieve excellent water locomotive abilities. The gharials’ characteristic long narrow snouts have very little resistance to water, which allows effortless swiping motions to snap up loads of fish. Zoo guests can see these prehistoric-looking animals swimming in the dramatic Gharial exhibit with 180-degree views at the entrance of the zoo’s Museum of Living Art (MOLA). Built with breeding in mind, the gharial exhibit houses one of the only male gharial crocodiles in the country. The zoo’s gharial conservation efforts are recognized and applauded by zoos from across the nation, so much so that the San Diego Zoo and Busch Garden Florida have sent their females to reside there. Assistant Curator of Ecotherms, Vicky Poole, says that the zoo is highly committed to this species. “We’ve had nesting on the beach and a few clutches of eggs, but none have been fertile so far. We use trail cameras to watch activity, and then we remove the eggs from the beach and incubate them artificially.” In the wild, gharials face a number of threats. Illegal fishing, sand mining (causing habitat destruction), pollution and siltation of rivers are the most significant causes for alarming decrease in the gharial population.

Natural Habitat: Long river systems in India
Life Span: 50-60 years
Zoo Diet: Variety of fish
Numbers in the Wild: 250
Fun Fact: Male gharials will bellow underwater to mark their territory, which can be heard for miles up and down the river.


Gulliver is one tough bird. Getting stuck on a power line in Virginia for three days earned him local celebrity status as the community rallied to rescue him. A helicopter crew was able to free him, but the damage to one of his wings led to an amputation. However, that didn’t slow him down. After being placed in an aviary at the Virginia Aquarium, a large storm came through, damaging Gulliver’s home and causing it to close. Now Gulliver thrives in the Gulf Shores exhibit of Texas Wild at the Fort Worth Zoo. Rene Serafino, bird supervisor, says that the absence of Gulliver’s wing doesn’t hinder him in any way. “He’s such a feisty bird and highly adaptable. The staff loves him. Gulliver is a force to be reckoned with, and he has a very healthy appetite.” Herring Gulls are unique in that, while they prefer drinking freshwater, they can drink seawater if desperate. Special glands located over their eyes allow them to excrete the salt that would otherwise dehydrate most animals. Gulliver has several other native Texas neighbors residing nearby in the Gulf Shore exhibit, including Brown and White Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Scarlet Ibis and a variety of water fowl.

Natural Habitat: All year near water in southern Alaska, the Great Lakes and northeast U.S., but most birds winter to the south of the breeding range as far as Mexico with small numbers reaching Hawaii, Central America and the West Indies.
Life Span: 15-20 years
Zoo Diet: Capelin, smelt, trout
Numbers in the Wild: 250,000
Fun Fact: Gulliver is stealthy. Despite zookeepers’ efforts, he still manages to steal fish from the other birds on occasion.


Found wandering in a California forest, emaciated and apparently abandoned, Sheldon and Leonard — yes, they’re named after the iconic characters from CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” — were rehabilitated by the California Fish and Wildlife Service before finding a permanent home at the Fort Worth Zoo. Grateful to avoid being separated, the brothers never leave each other’s sides. “Mountain lions are typically solitary animals. You can tell Sheldon and Leonard are siblings. They are always playing with and chasing each other,” says Melissa Blair, Texas Wild mammal supervisor. Now popular residents of Texas Wild, the 5-year-old brothers love showing off for zoo guests. Blair says, “They can jump from the very bottom of their exhibit to the top in one leap. It’s neat to have younger animals so you can see them use all of their abilities.”

Natural Habitat: Yukon in Canada to the southern Andes of South America
Life Span: 8-13 years (20 years in captivity)
Zoo Diet: Ground meat, whole prey and fish
Numbers in the Wild: 30,000
Fun Fact: Sheldon and Leonard like interacting with guests. If someone is wearing a brightly colored shirt, they will sit on top of the exhibit and watch them closely, almost like they are stalking them.


Pancakes, the pot-bellied pig, is part of the zoo’s Animal Outreach Program, which provides education and interactive shows for schools and special events. Kristen Garrett, community animal outreach manager, has been with the zoo for 21 years and says that Pancakes is one of the most popular members of the team. “Pancakes is so sassy. At shows she is such a hit. Pancakes will come charging out, and the kids go crazy,” Garrett says. Pancakes was purchased by someone who thought they were getting a teacup pig and was subsequently surrendered by her owner once she grew to be more than 100 pounds. Potbellied pigs are wild boar cousins from Vietnam who are, in fact, miniature pigs when standing next to huge farm pigs (who can weigh more than 1,000 pounds) or even wild hogs (who can weigh 450 to 700 pounds). However, potbellied pigs still grow to between 100 and 150 pounds on average — nowhere near small enough to fit into a teacup. “Pancakes is highly intelligent, on par with dogs or even smarter. We provide her with a lot of enrichment activities. She gets something new twice a day. It’s like giving a toddler a new toy or reading them a new book. Pancakes also plays with boxes, boomer balls and soccer balls. In the summer months, her favorite thing is to play in her kiddie pool,” Garrett says.

Natural Habitat: Open woodlands of Southeast Asia
Life Span: 15-25 years
Zoo Diet: Lettuce, carrots, grapes, tomatoes, pig pellets
Fun Fact: Pancakes loves to sleep in, and her favorite food is tomato.


Flamingo Bay was one of the first exhibits to open after the zoo’s privatization in 1995. Behind the flamingo exhibit is a structure, jokingly referred to as the “Love Shack,” that has garnered prestige by becoming the world’s most successful Lesser Flamingo breeding facility. Amanda Zalewski, bird department supervisor at the Fort Worth Zoo, says that they had to be clever to ensure breeding success. “Flamingos like to be in large flocks. We had to trick them by lining the walls with mirrors to make them think they were in a larger group than what they are actually in. We also controlled the temperature and humidity to replicate what it would be like in Africa naturally,” she says. The numbers of the Lesser Flamingo continue to drop due to problems such as flooding in their natural habitat, drought and toxins in the bodies of water they live by.

Natural Habitat: Flooded salt pans and alkaline lakes in Southern and Eastern Africa
Life Span: 40-50 years
Zoo Diet: Blue green algae, shrimp and other small invertebrates
Numbers in the Wild: 3.2 million
Fun Fact: Different than most birds, flamingos produce milk. It’s bright red and a little shocking at first, according to keepers.


Foreign exchange animals, Zora and Kajan, arrived last fall from the Hanover Zoo in Germany and are the newest residents in the World of Primates orangutan exhibit. Kajan’s introduction into the troop is significant because he is the first male to join the females in more than five years. Because Zora and Kajan were trained in the German language, zookeepers learned German words for their commands in order to communicate. Primate Keeper Ida Lewis has worked with animals for 25 years and says that while Zora and Kajan were raised together, they couldn’t be more different personality wise. “Zora is very keeper oriented and always the first to come up if you want to train. Kajan is very outgoing, but he first watches what Zora does and then decides to engage.” The Fort Worth Zoo has been successful in breeding orangutans. Lewis says, “Orangutans have the most intense relationship between mother and young of any nonhuman mammal. For the first eight years of a young orangutan’s life, its mother is its constant caregiver.” That being said, males have nothing to do with raising the offspring. Sumatran orangutans have been assessed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2000. They are considered one of “The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates.” Habitat loss (deforestation), hunting and illegal pet trade are among orangutans’ greatest threats.

Natural Habitat: Tropical and subtropical Sumatran forests
Life Span: 40-60 years
Zoo Diet: Lettuce, celery, sweet potatoes, onions, oranges, bananas, peas, corn, and on the day we photographed them, orange Jell-O.
Numbers in the Wild: 14,000
Fun Fact: In nature orangutans will wrap broad leaves around themselves as shelter. Zora and Kajan like to wrap themselves up in sheets to mimic this behavior.


Over the next 20 years, the Fort Worth Zoo plans to evolve its footprint. Taking into account problems with poaching and the struggle for several species to survive in the wild, the zoo will house several new species and attempt to educate and motivate future animal activists through its captivating exhibits. The development plan is divided into four states: African Savanna, Elephant Springs, Hunters of Africa & Asian Predators and Forests & Jungles. Set to open in May, the African Savanna will imitate the natural ecosystem of east Africa, where diverse species roam freely together. Zoo
guests will be able to feed giraffes and view hippos underwater.

Fort Worth Zoo
1989 Colonial Parkway

Hours: Mon. - Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Sat. - Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.