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Wildlife Wednesday: Here’s an Update on Native Gopher Tortoise ‘Wheels’

posted on January 27th, 2016 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

Wheels face

Remember Wheels, the native gopher tortoise who found himself at our veterinary hospital? A car-strike injury to his shell made it difficult for him to move around, and our team attached LEGO blocks with wheels to the bottom of his shell to help him walk. Of course, his nickname “Wheels” soon followed.

Wheels healed well, and I am proud to report that he is now back in the wild. We attached a telemetry device to his shell so we can track his whereabouts and make sure that he is coping out there. This kind of data is very valuable to our conservation team and helps us learn much more about this protected species.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Meet Willie the Aardvark at Rafiki’s Planet Watch

posted on January 13th, 2016 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

I’m delighted to introduce you to Willie, a new resident at Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Willie is an aardvark that frequents the outdoor stage next to Affection Section where I hope you get the chance to meet and learn more about him in person.


Animal keeper Julie has spent a lot of time with Willie as he acclimates to his new home and she already has lots of interesting and fun stories to share about Willie. One of Julie’s most memorable moments happened when Willie first walked into Affection Section and every goat and sheep turned their attention to the new arrival. As Julie explained to me, “They were all very interested and lined up at the fence to check him out. It was just as enriching for us [cast members] as it was for all of them.”


Although Willie generally focuses on learning new skills and exploring his world in the late afternoon, he sometimes decides to sleep through training time. (I’m usually ready for a nap around that time, too!) Willie’s behavior and preferred schedule is completely fine because all of the animals can choose whether they wish to participate in activities or not.

As much as Willie loves to sleep, he seems to like to eat even more, especially bugs, bananas and avocados. On occasion, he’ll get honeycomb larvae as a special treat.


In the pictures above, you may notice Willie is wearing a harness. This common practice is for Willie’s safety during the early stages of training, and while he’s getting used to the environment at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.


In the wild, aardvarks can most commonly be found roaming throughout Africa, south of the Sahara. Because of their nocturnal nature, you typically will see them only at night. Aardvark populations are declining because of human habitat infringement and illegal hunting in the wild. They are hunted mainly for their prized meat, but also for their skin, claws and teeth which are used to make jewelry and some traditional medicine.

Learn more about some of the animals you can visit at the Walt Disney World Resort at

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Wildlife Wednesday: Baby Marmoset Born at Rafiki’s Planet Watch!

posted on January 6th, 2016 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

There’s a new, high-pitched call coming from Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and it’s creating excitement among our cast members and guests. You’ll be surprised to learn this loud call is coming from a tiny animal, weighing only a few ounces!

Please help us welcome a new Geoffrey’s marmoset baby! Two 3-year-old marmosets are the proud parents, and we are happy to tell you that they are demonstrating great parenting skills. You can often see the baby riding mom or dad’s back.


Because the parents are keeping a close eye on the baby, we have been unable to identify whether the baby is a male or female. We are very comfortable with the level of parental care and are monitoring closely as we await the baby’s first neonatal check-up in a few weeks.

These marmosets are part of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), program coordinated through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The SSP is meant to strengthen long-term species-survival efforts by helping AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums manage species’ genetic diversity through detailed records of individual animals.


In the wild, marmosets face threats of habitat infringement and being hunted for the pet trade. Although they are cute and very small – adults weighing 6-12 ounces – they have social needs that are difficult, if not impossible, to meet in a human family setting, and should not be considered when choosing a domestic pet.

Marmosets are closely related to cotton-top tamarins, which you’ve probably read about in our Wildlife Wednesday series. Both monkeys have claws that help them gouge tree trunks and branches for tree sap, one of their favorite foods.

Learn more about some of the other animals you can visit at Walt Disney World Resort at

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Holiday Horse at Walt Disney World Resort has a Holiday Secret!

posted on December 10th, 2015 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

As you may have read here on the Disney Parks Blog or seen in person, we’re ready for the holidays at Walt Disney World Resort. The horses at Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground are ready, too, participating in nightly sleigh and wagon rides with our guests.

The video above tells the story of Dutch, a Percheron at Tri-Circle-D Ranch. In this tale, we learn that Dutch has a holiday secret he’s keeping from the ranch hands and other horses. You’ll never guess what it is!

On Christmas morning, don’t forget to watch the Disney Parks Unforgettable Christmas Celebration on ABC to see 14 of the Tri-Circle-D Ranch horses stroll down Main Street, U.S.A.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Disney Conservation Fund Awards $3 Million in Grants

posted on September 30th, 2015 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

One of my favorite things I get to do each year is help review conservation grant proposals for the Disney Conservation Fund (DCF). Every summer, I have a chance to work with my fellow cast members to provide needed funds to organizations from all over the world that help animals in the wild, inspire communities to preserve ecosystems and ensure our planet continues to thrive and provide for the amazing diversity of wildlife and communities who share it.


The grant review process is a lot of hard work, but it is very rewarding. This year 80 cast members served on one of six committees focused on reviewing conservation work taking place in different geographic areas. Reviewers include cast members from various parts of The Walt Disney Company with expertise in conservation research, education, animal care, communications, business and philanthropy. Each brings their own experiences, points of view and expertise that help us ensure funds are directed to projects that will have the greatest positive impact on endangered species and habitats. In less than four months, our team of reviewers collectively dedicated more than 2,100 hours of their own time to reviewing more than 300 proposals!

Serving on a review committee is a great opportunity for cast members to make a difference for the animals we are passionate about and inspire our guests to learn more about every day. Reviewers often share their awe at the astounding conservation work they read about, the exciting new approaches to solving conservation challenges and amazing stories of people truly dedicated to making the world a better place for communities and animals. Being a part of this process also helps cast members better understand the role The Walt Disney Company plays in conserving nature and connecting kids and families with nature all over the world.

It is especially rewarding when the group chooses to support a project I have been personally involved with – I was lucky enough to provide field or veterinary support to several of the projects in the past, and have visited many of the field sites where this amazing work is being done. We love seeing the Disney Conservation Fund supporting solid projects that our cast members have checked out in person.

This year, we are proud to share that nearly $3 million in grants from the DCF will benefit wildlife, habitats, and communities through 104 conservation projects! After 20 years of helping nonprofit organizations worldwide, we have officially surpassed $30 million in grants through the fund.

The DCF is supported by guests like you who make contributions at Disney’s Animal, The Seas with Nemo & Friends and The Land at Epcot, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Vacation Club Resorts and select Walt Disney World Resort hotels. Your support truly makes a difference, and we value the opportunity to work together to protect wildlife each year. I personally would like to share my congratulations to all of this year’s grant recipients, our many cast members for their hard work and to you, our guests, for helping us to conserve nature for future generations.

For a complete list of the 2015 Disney Conservation Fund grant recipients, you can visit Learn even more about the incredible achievements we have reached together at The Disney Post.

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QUIZ: Celebrate Elephant and Rhino Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on September 17th, 2015 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

Elephants and rhinos are massive, majestic and truly amazing animals. Here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom we are preparing a celebration fit for these large, charismatic creatures. Next Thursday, September 24, is Elephant and Rhino Day at Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and we are excited to share with you some of the activities that will be featured as part of the celebration.

Guests have the opportunity to meet rhino and elephant keepers, learn the differences between how white and black rhinos eat, how elephants communicate, how we are trying to keep them safe in the wild and much more.

In honor of these two larger-than-life species, we have developed a short quiz to test your knowledge of the African elephant and white rhino. Can you tell which animal we are describing?


Elephant and Rhino Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

This animal is the largest land mammal and eats up to 4 percent of its body weight a day. For a typical adult male, that can be up to 600 pounds of food, which turns into 200-300 pounds of waste a day.
After the longest pregnancy of any land mammal that may last 22 months, babies can weigh up to 300 pounds at birth!
This animal communicates through smells, courtesy of communal waste heaps called middens, which act as a type of message board. Smelling these heaps can tell other animals who is the dominant male or who is ready to breed.
Other than humans, this animal is one of the only ones known to mourn the passing of one of their own. Scientists believe that this emotional response to death demonstrates this animal’s higher intelligence and complex thought. This animal also has the largest brain of any land animal.
This animal is poached because part of its body is perceived by some cultures to have medicinal uses, and thus this species is on the brink of extinction. Only about 11,000 of these animals are left in the wild.
This animal is illegally poached to produce jewelry for the black market. It is estimated that 96 of them are hunted every day.
This animal’s name comes from a Greek word that describes its tusk or horn. This body part, the tusk or horn, is made of compressed keratin—the same material in human hair and fingernails.
This animal stays cool by using its ears to lower its body temperature up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It also only sweats around its toenails.
This animal has very poor eyesight and many times it relies on a bird called the oxpecker to raise an alarm when danger is nearby.
This animal can make many different sounds, including some too low in frequency for human ears. However, these low frequency sounds can be heard by an animal of the same species up to 1 1/2 miles away!

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Wildlife Wednesday: Celebrating Animal Births at Walt Disney World Resort in 2014!

posted on December 31st, 2014 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

Earlier this year, avid Disney Parks Blog readers joined us as we celebrated the arrival of two Western lowland gorillas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Western Lowland Gorilla Baby #1 and Mom Western Lowland Gorilla Baby #2 with Mom. Look For the Entire Family Group on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Those births were a very exciting time for our Animal Programs team, but we’ve had plenty of excitement throughout the year with hundreds of births and hatchings! (You are probably thinking, “Where are they keeping all of these baby animals?!”, but keep in mind that this large number includes invertebrates that can have 100 offspring at a time!) While we don’t have the space here to feature all of our new babies, the Animal Programs team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge have helped compile a quick list of some of the baby animals we welcomed this year.


Just around the corner from the gorilla families on Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, you can find a maze of slender-tailed meerkat burrows, and might even catch a glimpse of this baby meerkat or one of its nine siblings! The adults can be seen sitting upright as they keep watch over the newly extended family, and an alarm chirp sends them all scurrying into the safety of the burrows.

Great Blue Turacos Nest in the African Aviary at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Black Cheeked Lovebird Hatchlings Weigh Only 5 grams (About the Weight of a Quarter) at Hatch Look For the Beautiful Black Cheeked Lovebirds on Your Next Visit to the African Aviary on Pangani Forest Exploration Trail

A short walk from the meerkats, the African Aviary on Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is also home to new babies. These offspring weren’t born, they hatched! The Great blue turaco is the largest of the 23 types of turacos found only in Africa. They are primarily fruit eaters, and although they can fly very well, they prefer to run and scamper about the tree limbs, almost like a squirrel. This beautiful bird and recent hatchling can be seen in the Africa Aviary.

Also in the African Aviary, you can find a colony of Black cheeked lovebirds – a vulnerable African species of parrot. Only two zoos in the United States care for this species. The hatchlings weigh in at only ~5 grams (about the weight of a quarter) and reach only 4 inches in length when they are fully grown.

A wallaby joey is one of the many interesting species you don’t want to miss at the Oasis Exhibits as you begin your adventure at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He is most active during the cooler parts of the day, mornings and after late day rains. If you didn’t see his birth announcement on the Disney Parks Blog, you can check it out here.


Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open-air vehicle tour of a lush African savannah, is now home to this cute springbok calf, along with three other calves and their families. The springbok is able to run alongside its mother within an hour after birth, but of course it tires quickly, and will then flatten itself into the long grass and hide from predators.


In 2014, the team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge was delighted to welcome three Thomson’s gazelles, which are very similar in appearance to the springbok. The newest addition, pictured here, is a girl who was born in October. Although she’s resting in this photo, she often leaps and tears around the savannah. Thomson’s gazelles are some of the fastest antelope in Africa, and combine their incredible speed with agile jumps and maneuvers. They are often able to outrun cheetahs and other predators.


Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is also home to a Red river hog sow and her three piglets, born in May. This is her second litter and the entire family, including dad and aunt, can be found on the Pembe savannah.
(Did you know a female hog is called a “sow”? You did? “Sow” did I!)


All of our births and hatchings are celebrated because many animals, including the Western lowland gorilla and Black cheeked lovebirds, need our help for their species to survive. Several species are a part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP). Look for other baby animals and their families throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. We look forward to the New Year as we continue to protect wildlife and wild places around the world.

Happy New Year from all of our families to yours!!

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Wildlife Wednesdays: Colorful Macaws Take Flight in New Experience Coming This Summer to Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 7th, 2014 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

I am thrilled to share first with Disney Parks Blog fans news about a new animal experience coming soon to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Stars of the show are flocks of macaws in a kaleidoscope of colors flying over and around the heart of the park — Discovery Island. Brought to you by the fantastic team that inspires and delights guests at our Flights of Wonder show in collaboration with Disney Creative Entertainment, “Winged Encounters — The Kingdom Takes Flight,” will debut this summer.


The macaws, with wingspans up to 60 inches, are now making short flights in the early morning hours at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in preparation for the debut of the new experience, which features six types of macaw: hyacinth, green-winged, blue and gold, scarlet, blue-throated and military.

In addition to seeing these colorful birds in flight, during up-close encounters, avian experts will share conservation stories about the macaws, the majority of which are endangered in their native Central and South America.

Be sure to watch Disney Parks Blog for more information about this new experience in the coming weeks.

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Wildlife Wednesdays: Animal Care Team Creates Hog Heaven at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

posted on September 26th, 2012 by Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks

For my first Disney Parks Blog post, I am very pleased to share with you an example of how our animal care team is always striving to enhance both the guest and the animal experience at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Wildlife Wednesdays: Animal Care Team Creates Hog Heaven at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

The Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge animal care team noticed that the red river hogs were using some natural mud wallows to stay cool in areas where the guests could not see them. They recognized that this is a natural behavior the guests would love to see, and went about filling in those natural wallows while creating a “deluxe version” where guests could get a good view. Then the animal care team figured out how to encourage the hogs to go to the new wallow, and reinforced that behavior. It wasn’t long before being in the new wallow became a highly desirable activity for the hogs. Now we have very happy hogs, happy animal keepers, happy savanna guides interpreting the behavior—and a wonderful natural behavior for guests to enjoy.

Wildlife Wednesdays: Animal Care Team Creates Hog Heaven at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

Did you know?

  • The savannas at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge present an exceptional opportunity for guests to see African wildlife in a large, mixed-species habitat right outside the guests’ hotel rooms throughout the day and into the evening.
  • Although the selection of animals on the savanna often changes, in addition to the red river hogs, guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge may see giraffe, Ankole cattle, zebra, okapi, several species of antelope, Abyssinian ground hornbills and ostriches, among many others.
  • The red river hog is a wild member of the pig family that lives in western and central Africa. In the wild, red river hogs eat grasses, berries, roots, insects, small animals and carrion.
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