The Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas is one of my favorite zoos for many reasons, not the least of which is its exceptional collection of ungulates. Since opening in 1971, the zoo has kept and bred many rare species of hooved animals, including the Jentink’s duiker and the harnessed bushbuck (antelopes found in no other zoo in the world). The gaur (Bos gaurus)–the world’s largest species of wild cattle–is certainly one of the most impressive creatures to be encountered on a day’s outing at Gladys Porter. Native to India and SE Asia, the gaur (pronounced gow-er) is vulnerable to extinction in the wild, but fortunately breeds well in zoos.
Gaur bulls are enormous creatures that can weigh (in the largest individuals) over 1.5 tons and stand over six feet tall. As you can see, a bull’s extreme muscular development is exceeded by few creatures in the animal kingdom! Adult gaur are one of the few ungulates in their native Asia able to take on a hungry tiger and win, a fact accounting for the relatively low mortality among mature gaur in the wild. Though tigers sometimes kill gaur calves, a gaur herd will encircle its young when threatened, presenting a solid wall of muscle and horn to a potential predator. The species exhibits marked sexual dimorphism, with the females being brownish instead of black and much smaller and less powerfully built than the bulls.
Timo–the Gladys Porter Zoo’s new gaur calf– was born July 13, 2009 after a gestation period of 275 days. As you can see, in typical gaur fashion, he’s already huge! He had problems with his back legs, however, during his first few weeks of life and was unable to walk normally, a condition requiring intensive physical therapy administered by the dedicated zoo staff. Fortunately, Timo has made a full recovery. Growing rapidly, he is losing the light red coloring typical of newborn gaur calves and is taking on the dark brown of females and juvenile males. He’s making up for lost time and is very active these days.
Perhaps a bit too active…
The gaur exhibit at Gladys Porter is built at the edge of the zoo’s resaca– or oxbow lake. This central waterway runs the length of the zoo and is dotted with lush primate islands. It serves as home to dozens of wild bird species native to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (the zoo’s Friendly Freeloaders) and is accessed by the public via a network of boardwalks. Bypassing the temporary electric wire and yellow flags meant to keep the newly-mobile young gaur from the water’s edge, Timo just had to go exploring– and tumbled headlong into the resaca. Now he’s helpless and in need of immediate rescue.
Luckily, Timo’s misadventure is quickly discovered. Radio messages are dispatched, word spreads across the zoo, and the staff scrambles into action. It is imperative that keepers respond as swiftly as possible. Separated from the herd, Timo is under stress. He is floundering at the water’s edge, trying to get back to mother, but cannot get his footing. Though gaur calves are tough, Timo could possibly injure himself or even drown. Murphy’s Law can easily work against the survival of an animal under these circumstances. Inevitably, if something can go wrong, it will– and the clock is ticking.
Fortunately, help arrives quickly.
Of course, Timo doesn’t realize that a keeper in a johnboat represents his only way out. He’s frightened, disoriented, and determined to avoid capture.
He’s an able swimmer for a creature so young, displaying the enormous strength and stamina of his species, but is heading toward the edge of one of the resaca’s gibbon islands. It is vital at this point that he be stopped. Should he scramble out of the water onto a gibbon island, an already precarious situation could become much more dangerous for Timo and for his rescuers.
A Mueller’s gibbon (Hylobates muelleri)–endemic to Borneo– watches at the water’s edge with intense interest. Gibbons are highly territorial primates, taking a dim view of any invasion of their personal space. They have razor sharp teeth capable of inflicting severe wounds and possess lightning-quick reflexes.
A terrified gaur loose amongst angry gibbons is not an option.
Fortunately, Timo is headed off just in time as a second keeper arrives on the scene.
Quickly, a rope is put around Timo’s neck…
…as the boat is steered along the reseca to a landing point at the edge of the neighboring Przewalski’s horse exhibit.
Only a couple of minutes more– and the crisis will be over. A length of extension cords knotted together makes a handy lifeline as the boat is guided to shore.
Out of the water at last!
At the first sign of trouble, the Przewalski’s horses were quickly lured from their outdoor enclosure into an off exhibit area, making way for Timo’s safe landing. He’s tired and not struggling any longer. The keepers are using every ounce of their strength to help him stand as he is led toward the barn. Hauling this gigantic three-month-old ashore is no mean feat!
Fortunately, Timo hasn’t been injured and is no worse for wear. A bit stressed perhaps, but he’ll spend the balance of the day resting quietly indoors.
By next morning, the electric barrier has been reinforced– and Timo is out with mother. He’s learned his lesson and has not tried to go swimming a second time. Timo’s definitely a survivor.
In a few years time, he’ll be unrecognizable and will take his place as the super-sized leader of a herd of his own. Though the magnificent gaur is threatened in the wild, zoos like Gladys Porter–dedicated to captive breeding- offer a lasting refuge for this and many other imperiled species.
Wild black-bellied whistling ducks at ring-tailed lemur island
I feel very lucky to have discovered this wonderful wildlife haven in deep south Texas, just this side of the Rio Grande from Mexico. The life stories of hundreds of animals from all over the world are unfolding every day at the Gladys Porter Zoo, with a new discovery awaiting everywhere you look. I sincerely hope that you’ll take the opportunity to visit the zoo–and Timo– soon. He’s growing up fast!