Jessica Reyes

Manager, Public Relations & Communications 

Photo provided by Houston Zoo

With the holiday season upon us, Houston Zoo has a lot to be thankful for as we look back at the accomplishments in 2023. From a welcome surprise of the Zoo’s oldest animal becoming a first-time dad to opening the first exhibit of its kind, Galápagos Islands, to significant births, the Zoo has stayed true to its mission of connecting communities with animals to inspire action to save wildlife.

At 90 years young Mr. Pickles, the oldest animal at Houston Zoo, became a new dad after three radiated tortoise eggs hatched. The little Pickles are a big deal (big dill?) for radiated tortoise genetics as their father, Mr. Pickles, is one of the most genetically valuable radiated tortoise in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan® (SSP). Mr. Pickles has been at the Zoo for 36 years and has been with his companion, 53-year-old Mrs. Pickles since she arrived in 1996. The new tortoises were named Dill, Gherkin and Jalapeño. The trio remain behind the scenes in the Reptile & Amphibian House until they are big enough to safely be on exhibit.  

In the spring, Houston Zoo became the first zoo in the world to open a major conservation-focused exhibit based on the Galápagos Islands, an isolated archipelago off the coast of Ecuador and among the most interesting places on Earth for its elusive biodiversity. The grand debut came just in time to bring the Zoo’s centennial anniversary to a close. The new exhibit is home to California sea lions, Galápagos tortoises, Humbolt penguins, black-tipped reef sharks, Caribbean iguanas and more! Most of the animals in the Galápagos Islands exhibit are closely related species and will serve as ambassadors for their Galápagos cousins.

No other place on our planet better exemplifies the wonders of the unique species, the delicate balance of ecosystems, or the pressing need for conservation more than the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. With the new exhibit, the Zoo’s two million annual guests will learn how our shared ocean connects us to species in the Galápagos, and how our conservation actions here in Houston will lead to healthier oceans worldwide. 

In early summer, Houston Zoo welcomed a northern white-cheeked gibbon baby marking the first time this species has been born at Houston Zoo. The baby was born to first time parents Ting and Max and was named Marv by his animal care team. White-cheeked gibbons are dimorphic in fur color which means they are born a cream color and then change to black when they are about two years old. At that point, they develop their iconic white cheek patches. Males will stay black while females revert back to the cream color.

In the fall, Houston Zoo celebrated a continental first! Houston Zoo welcomed its first ever Malagasy sacred ibis chick, making it the first time this endangered species has successfully hatched in an accredited North American Zoo. During a visit to Houston Zoo, Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy, the Zoo’s conservation partner from Madagascar, was given the opportunity to name the female chick. Dr. Jonah chose the name Vorotsara (pronounced VURU-CHARA), meaning “beautiful bird” in Malagasy.

With an estimated world population of 2,300 to 3,000 Malagasy sacred ibis birds left this species was highlighted as having a high conservation need by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Houston Zoo is one of the five Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited Zoos in North Americato receive a breeding flock from Germany.

The Zoo’s successes this past year are a testament to the phenomenal work from staff, volunteers, and donors to continue to make the Houston Zoo a world-class cultural icon.