On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, to the show on Monday, October 19 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Of course we’re going to ask about the baby panda!
But what about the elephants? And the otters? And the naked mole rats?
We’re sure kids have plenty of questions for Steve Monfort, who has been in charge of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute since 2018. Find out how the zoo gets its animals, who takes care of them and his hopes for the zoo in the coming years.
This week we also welcome our class of the week to the show, Ms. Proulx’s first graders at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School in Cheverly, Maryland. We’re sure they’ll have lots of questions too!
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Steven Monfort Director, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.; @NationalZoo
KOJO NNAMDIIf you think of pandas as typically quiet animals, you're right. But, as you just heard, the new baby panda at the National Zoo has a lot to say when veterinarians were trying to give him his first checkup. Today, we're going to talk about that new panda and many of the other 2,000 animals at the National Zoo. From the alligators to the zebras, our guest today is responsible for every single one of them. Steven Monfort is a veterinarian and wildlife conservationist who has been in charge at the National Zoo since 2018.
KOJO NNAMDIWe're also joined today by our class of the week, Miss Proulx's first graders at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School in Cheverly, Maryland. We're sure they have questions about animals, zoo keeping, and conversation, but we think you might, too. Adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids. we take kids' calls only. Steve Monfort, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to the program.
STEVEN MONFORTThank you, Kojo. It's great to be with you again.
NNAMDIYes. Steve, I know many of our listeners are eager to hear about the baby panda, but first, let's talk about you as a kid. Where were you born, where did you grow up, and what did you like to do?
MONFORTWell, Kojo, my father was a U. S. Marine, and so we moved around quite a bit. But I did -- I grew up mostly in San Diego, California. One thing that is relevant, I think, to this conversation is that when I was five and six years old, we lived in the Philippines. And outside of my house, about 100 yards away, was a chain link fence, and beyond that was the jungle. And there were macaques that would come out at night, and I would see rivers of bats flying across the sky. There were bugs as big as my little hand, and everywhere I looked, there were fascinating things that had to do ultimately with nature.
MONFORTAnd I think truthfully, you know, that's probably when I absolutely fell in love with nature and wildlife and animals. Just that curiosity, the power of weather systems to animals in the jungle, it was just really fascinating for me.
NNAMDIDid you have pets, that you can tell us about?
MONFORTOh, sure. That was also -- you know, at that age, around six years old, I think we got the first dog that I fell in love with. And her name was D-o-g, so not very clever, (laugh) but dog, phonetically spelled out. She was a German shepherd. And there was just something about animals and the way one can communicate with an animal, sort of the unconditional love that a dog provides. You know, that really attracted me, you know, to want to be with animals and care for them and learn more about them.
NNAMDIYou’re serious? Your first pet's name was D-o-g?
MONFORTYeah, but we said it fast. It was D-o-g. (laugh)
NNAMDIWhat did you want to be when you grew up? Did you picture yourself working with animals?
MONFORTNo. You know, I'll be honest with you. I think when I was in grade school, I think I took one of those tests that told you what you were going to be when you grew up. And it didn't indicate a scientist or a veterinarian. But when I was in high school, that was really the time -- maybe it was junior high, I started to dream about what sort of career could I pursue that would have a combination of my love of nature and animals, and, you know, at the time -- I didn't articulate it this way -- but wanting to be part of something important where I could make a difference and where I could be part of something bigger than myself. And that's where I kind of considered veterinary medicine as an opportunity to do that, and that became my goal, at that time.
NNAMDISteve, we've got a few callers already, but before I go to the phones, after college you went to veterinary school. What do you learn there? I assume they teach you to care for cats and dogs, but what about caring for elephants, hippos and other animals found in zoos?
MONFORTThat's a great question, Kojo. They actually -- I went to UC Davis in California, and at the third and fourth year, you got to specialize, and they had a track for zoo and wildlife medicine. So, I took that track, and when I graduated, I came into the Smithsonian. I did a summer internship at the zoo, never imagining I would be in Washington and one day be the director of the zoo.
MONFORTBut, you know, I just -- my progression changed from wanting to be a veterinarian to falling in love with science, and then combining the two together. And so, I spent most of my real career at the Smithsonian being a research veterinarian. So, I was both a scientist and a veterinarian.
NNAMDIYou are the director of the National Zoo, but also the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute. What is that?
MONFORTWell, we have -- we're, you know, the National Zoo. We take the name -- you know, the nation's zoo. We're part of the Smithsonian, and we feel very strongly that the mission of the Smithsonian relates to us quite well, which is the increase and diffusion of knowledge. And we know so little about the biology and the life history of species, millions of species, many of which have never even been named to science.
MONFORTAnd so, you know, it's a big job, to understand that. And to do it, we have a very strong group of scientists that work to help understand the biology of animals, not only their physiology, but let's say, how do we care for them, but also how do we help them be sustained in nature, to stop them from going extinct. And so many of our scientists are based out at this 3,000-acre facility in Front Royal, Virginia that's closed to the public, but where we do a lot of endangered species research and laboratory research and where many of our scientists from both the zoo and SBCI deploy and work in 25 or 30 countries around the world, you know, each year, at least in a non-pandemic year.
NNAMDII think Kya, nine years old in Laurel, Maryland would like to stump you. Here is Kya. Kya, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KYAOkay. I have a question. Do you know what a (word?) is?
MONFORTI'm sorry, what was the name?
KYADhole? Yes, of course. Well, if it's -- a dhole is an Asiatic wild dog, and they live in groups. But we know very little about their biology, so they are -- we have scientists that work in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia where these species exist. And it was what I mentioned before. We know their numbers are reducing in nature, but we don't necessarily know the causes. So, a lot of our research is understanding just the basic biology of dholes, how they move, how they live, what they eat, what their threats are and things like that. So, I do know what they are. They're a magnificent small canid species, and we're working hard to help save them right now.
NNAMDIKya, how did you find out about dholes?
KYAMy favorite nature TV show had an episode about dholes. But the first time I found out about them was when I have this book about animals. So, I was flipping through the pages, and then I found one about the dhole.
NNAMDIOh, well, good for you and thank you for calling about dholes, because you have helped to educate a lot of people, you and Steve Monfort. Thank you very much for your call. Well, Steve, I don't think we can put off talking about the panda any longer. This baby was born on August 21st, which makes him like eight weeks old. What can you tell us about him?
MONFORTWell, he's our COVID miracle, I would say. And this is because -- well, any panda birth is something to celebrate. It sparks great joy in millions of people. But mom, in this case, Mei Xiang, is quite old for a panda. So, we looked at all of the charts of animals around the world that had given birth, all of the pandas that had given birth. And she -- only one older female than Mei Xiang, she was 22, had ever given birth before successfully. So, our expectations were very low.
MONFORTAnd so, when she showed all the normal behaviors in the spring and all the signals indicated she was receptive to breeding, we decided to go ahead and did the insemination procedure, and she gave birth. So, our expectations were low but now we have this fantastic, beautiful little male cub who just opened his eyes a couple days ago, growing. I saw him just the other day. He's almost as wide as he is long, he is so well nourished. And he does nothing but eat and sleep and cuddle up with mom.
MONFORTIt's unbelievably amazing how quickly these little guys grow from something the size of a butter stick now to -- we estimated he's increased his body size at least six times from the time he was born, which is incredible, in two months.
NNAMDIWell, these days, the panda's undeniably cute, but his newborn pictures show a skinny, hairless baby, just a few inches long. Why do pandas not look much like pandas when they're born?
MONFORTWell, it's a great question. They're born basically helpless to their mom, and they rely on mom 100 percent. They can't maintain their body heat very well, so they have to stay snuggled up with mom. Of course, they need milk, and so on. We don't know a lot about pandas, exactly why they're born in this state, but we know that similar to other bears, they're born at a very immature stage. And we think this has to do with it's less -- there's less energy required by mom to carry a very small fetus, or baby, inside of her. And so that saves mom energy, and she can save that up to produce milk that the baby needs when it's born.
MONFORTSo, it's a strategy that's worked, of course, over hundreds of thousands of years for pandas. And mom certainly knew -- she knows exactly what to do. The second that baby was born, she put those big hands that are the size of baseball mitts and just reached down and scooped that little cub up and put it on her chest. I mean, it was something to behold.
NNAMDIWell, here is a question from five-year-old Nora in Washington, D.C. Nora, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NORAWhy do pandas eat bamboo?
NNAMDIWhy do pandas eat bamboo? Yes.
MONFORTWhy do they eat bamboo? Yeah, that's another great question.
NNAMDIGreat question, Nora.
MONFORTYes. It's one of the mysteries. We don't really know exactly why pandas depend on bamboo, but they certainly do. And it's almost an exclusive part of their diet. When they live in China, they live in the mountains, and they live in bamboo forests. And they rely on certain types of bamboo species in order for them to survive. It is a mystery to us.
MONFORTPandas are -- they're a bear, but they're not like many of the other bear species, because, as we know, the big ferocious bears, the grizzly bears, the polar bears, they're very much meat eaters. They're carnivores, where giant pandas are almost exclusively herbivore in their diet. So, it's a great question. It's one that science doesn't really know the answer to, but it's something that we do know that they must have bamboo and, boy, they eat a lot of bamboo.
MONFORTI hate to say it, they eat many, many pounds of bamboo, and most of it comes out as -- their pooh looks just like bamboo does. It's really funny to see. It's almost like they can't digest it very well, so they have to eat a tremendous amount of it to get the energy they need. So, pandas are very interesting in that way.
NNAMDIBut I got to tell you Nora, that's a great question, because watching pandas, they make bamboo actually seem appetizing. (laugh) It tempts me to go out and eat some bamboo. (laugh) Here is six-and-a-half-year-old Owen in Cheverly, Maryland. Owen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OWENMine is how do baby pandas grow? How do baby pandas sleep?
MONFORTOh, my. I think little baby pandas and grownup pandas, they have to be experts at sleeping, because they sleep a lot of the time. They're either eating or they're sleeping. And the little cub is no different. The cub needs mom's milk in order for it to grow. And so, the main source, the only source of food right now is mother's milk. And so, the cub drinks that milks a lot of different times during the day, and it converts that into its own body fat and the energy it needs to grow.
MONFORTSo, right now, it's eating just milk, no bamboo for the baby. And when it gets older, it'll eventually learn how to do that. But it will be with mom -- they continue to nurse, off and on, until around two years of age. So, the cub, in the wild, wouldn't be fully weaned, wouldn't stop taking mom's milk until around two years of age. So, the milk is the main part of nutrition right now, and then over time, it will gradually start to eat bamboo. And then, pretty soon, it'll be just bamboo, after about two years.
NNAMDIOwen, thank you very much for your call, a call from Cheverly, so he's probably a part of our class of the week, Ms. Proulx's first graders at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School in Cheverly, Maryland. Let's go next to eight-year-old Violet in Woodbridge, Virginia. Violet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VIOLETHi. I have a question, please.
NNAMDII know you do, Violet. Go ahead and ask it.
VIOLETMy favorite animal's a chicken. What do they eat?
MONFORT(laugh) What is it, a kitten or...
MONFORTA chicken. Oh, chickens like to eat a lot of -- well, barnyard chickens will eat a lot of things, but they like grain, mostly, so they're pretty much vegetarian. And they'll eat seeds and grain and things like that. So, they're very healthy, have a very healthy diet, actually.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Here -- what -- does the panda have a name yet? Who's going to name him?
MONFORTWe are going to have an ability for everyone to vote on a name. So, we're getting some names together now. We're reaching out to some of our good colleagues in China who work with us, and we're putting together a list of maybe, probably four names. And then we're going to ask the public to vote, and we're going to then unveil the name at a ceremony. We haven't picked the date of that yet, but it's upcoming.
NNAMDII have a suggestion.
MONFORT(laugh) There are many suggestions, Kojo. You can only imagine. (laugh)
NNAMDIHow about D-o-g? (laugh)
MONFORT(laugh) Yeah, it'd work for me. (laugh) I'd like that.
NNAMDIHere is six-year-old Lori in Bouie, Maryland. Lori, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LORIHave you ever seen a toucan in the wild?
MONFORTI have -- well, I think I have only once but, boy, they're really beautiful birds. There are so many beautiful birds, even in your backyard, especially during the spring and the summer. If you pay attention early in the springtime and you start listening for the birds to make sounds, many of these birds fly from thousands and thousands of miles away, including South America. And they come all the way up to your backyard. And you'll start to hear them singing.
MONFORTSo, these birds that live in South America, many species -- not the toucan, necessarily -- but many species of birds, they might live here for part of their life, but they live somewhere far, far away for the rest of their life. And we try to figure out how do amazing migrations like that -- how do they work and why are they important and how can we make sure they keep -- we have the ability for animals to move without humans interfering with that in the future.
MONFORTSo, birds are -- I like that you like birds, because they are incredibly beautiful and there's billions of birds, and they're all around us. And they provide just such a great gift to us. So, just go outside. (laugh) That's my main message to young kids, really, is explore. Go outside. We live in a forest, in our area. There's so much to see, so much wildlife there all year round, really, but especially in the springtime.
NNAMDILori, thank you very much for your call. This question, for me Steve, is very uncomfortable. This baby panda is a boy. How did we figure that out?
NNAMDIWas there any touching involved? (laugh)
MONFORTWell, let me just say, there is -- normally speaking, you can lift the tail and you can see whether it's a male or a female. But when they're that tiny, when they're just like the size of a butter stick, it's possible to make a mistake. And so, to be absolutely sure, we took a little swab and a little bit of some cells from the mouth, so just swabbed some cells, and we sent them to our genetics lab. And they did a special test that confirmed the sex. And so, we absolutely know for sure that it's a male, yeah.
MONFORTOh, good, thank you for the swab.
MONFORTDon't want to make any mistakes in that department. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) Thank you for the swab. Will he eventually go to live in China, like the other pandas born at the National Zoo? And why do we keep sending pandas born here to China?
MONFORTWell, you know, we have a fantastic, 50-year-long partnership with our Chinese colleagues. And so, the pandas, the adult pandas are really owned by China. And what they do is they loan them to us. And so, while they're here, if they have any babies, then by the time the babies are four years of age, we have to send them back to China -- or we send them to China for their first time, and they join in the breeding program there.
MONFORTBecause, as you can imagine, most of the China's -- most of the pandas that exist in the world live in China, and so they have a program there to try to breed pandas so that they can ultimately put animals back into the wild, to reintroduce them. So, the young cubs that we produce will all go back and contribute to the breeding of the population in China. And we hope that, one day, their offspring will be free living in nature once again.
NNAMDIHere is seven-year-old Lucas from our elementary school in Cheverly, Maryland. Lucas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Ask a question.
LUCASHow do you take care of animals?
MONFORTOh, that's a great question. You know, when you're your age -- when I was your age, I think I mentioned to Kojo already, I mean, the way that I learned to take care of animals was that I had a pet. And, in my case, it was a dog. Later on, though, when I was in sixth grade, I had a special teacher, Mrs. Brariton, and she became someone who helped me understand about nature.
MONFORTAnd so, we went on walks, and she had -- she would let us catch some bugs and she had a snake in the classroom. And we would put them in little tanks and terrariums. We would watch them and observe them, and we would feed them, and we learned how to care for them.
MONFORTAnd so, for me, learning about caring for animals was something that I was guided. Somebody showed me or encouraged me, you know, to get out into nature, get your hands dirty, pick up bugs. You know, if you find a salamander it's okay to look at it and get close to it. And maybe you have a pet, and it could be a tiny pet, it could be a gerbil, it could be a bird, it could be a dog. But it's somebody -- an animal will give you a sense of responsibility for caring for it, because it depends on you. So, I learned that way in the beginning. And I fell in love with animals in that way, too.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We only have 30 seconds left, but Cora in Washington, D.C. has a very important question. Cora, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CORAHi. Do you have a favorite animal? Not like a species, but like a favorite animal, in particular?
MONFORTOh, my. You know, if you're the director of a zoo, it's kind of -- you have to love all of the animals. It's like being a mom or a dad. And so, I try not to play favorites to individual animals, but I have to say I've had a couple of animals that I took care of as a veterinarian in the past that meant a lot to me. And you have to know that the animal caretakers at the zoo, when something bad happens to an animal, they feel terrible, like a family member going wrong. So, we do care deeply for the animals we have.
MONFORTI just want to quickly say, one thing, if you want to learn -- one way you could learn about taking care of animals, we've just come up with a new game. It's called “Zoo Guardians,” and you can pick it up free on...
NNAMDIGot about 20 seconds.
MONFORTYeah, anyway, it's a game that teaches you how to build your own zoo and how to care for your own animals. So, check it out. It's called “Zoo Guardians.”
NNAMDIWell, Cora, I know he's partial to the naked mole rat. Steve Monfort is the director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Thank you so much for joining us.
MONFORTThank you. Thanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe. Parents and teachers, if you'd like your class to be featured on Kojo for Kids, go to kojoshow.org/kids. We're looking for elementary, middle and high school classes for our upcoming shows.
NNAMDIOur conversation about "DeafU" was produced by Julie Depenbrock with help on the Facebook Live Stream from Chris Gesture and Yilin Zhang. Coming up tomorrow, the election is about two weeks away. So, how is early voting going, and what issues are driving voters to the polls? Plus, Virginia has gone from purple to blue the past few elections. We'll talk with the chair of the state's Republican and Democratic Parties about politics in the Commonwealth, the divided electorate, and what color Virginia will be on November 3rd.
NNAMDIAnd I'd like to mention, last week on this show, Washington Teacher's Union President Liz Davis shared her concerns with returning to in-person instruction. On Wednesday, we'll talk with D.C.'s Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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