Just call Mandi Krebs a matchmaker.
A fossa matchmaker, that is.
She certainly had a hand in the two healthy fossa pups now on view in the outdoor enclosure next to Expedition Madagascar at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
Krebs brought their parents together. Little Red, who lives here, and Charlie, who lived in San Diego, were a good match because they could produce genetically healthy children.
How did Krebs know that?
Because in addition to being the interactive programs manager at the zoo, Krebs also is the fossa Species Survival Plan coordinator for North America and keeper of the fossa studbook.
Fossa (pronounced FOO' sa, which rhymes with TOO-sa) are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.
“There are fewer than 2,500 in the wild,” Krebs said. However, she pointed out, fossa are difficult to count because they are solitary animals and are good at hiding.
It's important to keep track of breeding so the captive population remains healthy. Krebs is the first person to hold the North America coordinator/studbook keeper job, which she was awarded in 2006 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She won the position over several other applicants, and she had to go to school in West Virginia twice to prepare for the job.
She has been able to locate a total of 65 fossa — 34 males and 31 females — living in both AZA member and non-AZA member zoos in North America, she said. Omaha’s zoo now has six fossa.
As the first studbook keeper she has traced back as far as she can all 65 fossa — even to when they were taken from the wild, if possible. Some have gone back as far as 1953. Like any research project, it can be tedious work sometimes, she said.
As coordinator of the Species Survival Plan, it's her job to recommend the best pairings for keeping the genetic diversity high among the captive fossa population. It was her recommendation that brought Charlie to Omaha from San Diego as a good match for Little Red.
Her recommendations — she has made 31 so far — don't always make institutions happy, and they can't be forced to follow her suggestions. That's especially true when her recommendation is to not let certain animals breed with each other.
“Everyone loves babies, and babies draw visitors,” she said.
An international studbook keeper lives in Germany, and his work has helped Krebs do hers. She said that every three years they get together at the population management center in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. “We analyze all the data and make a plan,” Krebs said.
The goal is 90 percent genetic diversity. It's difficult to maintain without taking more animals out of the wild, which is not a part of her recommendations.
There is no term limit for the fossa SSP coordinator or studbook keeper. “I can do it as long as I want,” she said. “It can be a lot of work, but I love it.”
It took a while for the pups to go on display. They were born last summer but were too small to let outside. Then it turned too cold, and winter kept them indoors even longer. This month they finally were allowed in the outdoor exhibit, where they can be seen playing and chasing each other and their mother.
That kind of play when they're young is important for fossa, Krebs said. “They learn to become agile, balance, catch prey and run fast.”
She said fossa got a bad rap as the villains of the big-screen animated “Madagascar” movies. Although they do lunch on cute lemurs in the wild, it's not because fossa are mean or don't like the other animals.
“It's because they are hungry,” she said, adding: “They really are amazing animals.”
Krebs, who is married to Jessi Krebs, the zoo's curator for reptiles and amphibians, started working with the zoo when she was still in college. She began as a horticulturist at the Wildlife Safari Park. After she graduated from Doane College with a degree in biology, she became a full-time horticulturist in the Lied Jungle.
She moved to the Desert Dome as a keeper after its construction was completed. She stayed there, becoming an assistant supervisor and then supervisor. It's also where she first encountered fossa, in the Kingdoms of the Night exhibit. Last year she was promoted to interactive programs manager.
In that role, Wednesday was a big day for her. Her “Wildlife Show,” a 20-minute, educational, interactive show to introduce guests to animals at the zoo, had its first presentation in the auditorium of the Wild Kingdom Pavilion. Plans are to offer the free show every day at 2 p.m.
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