Once, several – okay, many years ago I was a zoo keeper. It wasn’t a big place, there were just two keepers, a couple of dozen animals and a handful of volunteers, but it was the best job ever. I love zoos, have loved them since my first zoo visit with my wonderful grandfather when I was about six. So I am going to let you in on a little secret about zoos that most people seem to miss. The best day to go to the zoo is a cool, cloudy, even misty day.
Sure, it is much nicer for us humans to wander around outside when it is sunny and warm, but zoo critters? They are happiest when it is a little cool. Which is why when you drag your kids, your family, whoever, to the zoo on a sunny day you spend an inordinate amount of time playing “where is the animal sleeping?” rather than actually seeing them. Cool days cause elephants to frolic, primates to play, big cats to bat about bowling balls and so on. Try it sometime, you might get a bit damp, but you’ll have a great time.
Which leads me to this week’s Portland Adventure. Yes, it was the Oregon Zoo. I love this zoo. It is a great size – just perfect for a day’s outing. It is beautifully laid out for humans to walk and beautifully built for the animals that live there. I should confess here that the very first zoo I visited – the one that Grandpa Louie took me too (as well as two of my big brothers) – was indeed the Oregon Zoo. I have many fond memories of that day, and I credit my love of zoos to that visit.
Saturday was one of those cool, overcast days; a bit of fog was clinging to the hills of the city and Beth suggested that we hit the zoo. I have been itching to get there for the past few months but felt a sort of ennui over the idea of hoards of children, hot summer days, noise and parking. But on a fall Saturday with just a hint of chill in the air, it seemed a perfect day to head to Washington Park and give the critters a look. The morning mist soon gave way to a glorious and sunny afternoon with just enough of a breeze to keep it from being too warm.
We started our journey, appropriately enough, in the Great Northwest section. A beautiful exhibit of black bears; two of whom were sleeping, the third wandering about the place looking for food most likely; was our first stop. We wandered along the paths, pointing out animals to one another, – the majestic bald eagles, the mountain goats; we spent time identifying the various ducks in the Cascade Stream exhibit and waiting impatiently for the cougar. We did give up on the cougar, whose exhibit was being cleaned when we arrived; which was kind of sad because I have a special affection for the cats having had the chance to take care of one.
From there we stopped at the Family Farm exhibit, mainly because of the goat who was perching on top of a barrel. You don’t see that every day. I am always happy to see zoos that embrace the domestic side of the animal kingdom as well. It is all well and good to take a four year old to a zoo and point out the bears, the lions, the tigers; but truthfully they are going to get the most excited by the ones they can get close to. So bring on the chickens and the goats, let them get the thrill of getting nose to nose with the calves and the piglets.
We made our way past the Orangutans where, much to my amusement, a little boy was adamantly correcting his father that no, these were not monkeys they were apes. Then it was on to the stars of the Oregon Zoo, the elephants; or as they will now and forever will be remembered by Beth and me – the elfanets, as they were referred to by a very cute little girl. The Oregon Zoo is known for its elephant program and it was a blast to see the newest member of the herd, two year old Samudra. It was a bit daunting to come around the corner and see one of the large bull elephants, he was humongous! We ogled fruit bats, admired the giraffes, smiled at the Colobus monkeys looking all rock and roll with their white fringe, and enjoyed watching one of the tigers doing what tigers do best – sleeping. I actually got my fill of animal wonderfulness, or at least enough to tide me over for now.
I think we are fortunate on this end of the country to have a lot of really great zoos. The Seattle area alone has three, Woodland Park in Seattle, the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville. Each has something just a little different. Oregon Zoo has their famous elephants, Northwest Trek specializes in the wild animals of the region – you won’t see a tiger there, but you might find yourself looking at a grizzly or listening to a pack of wolves howl. Point Defiance has a very successful red wolf conservation program and a good aquarium to boot, and Woodland Park has a variety of award winning exhibits as well as a breeding pair of Sumatran tigers. We are rife with great animal parks around here!
While I know that some people chafe at the notion of zoos, I am a big supporter. The horrible cage heavy zoos of old are pretty well gone, replaced by beautiful exhibits that seek to duplicate the natural habitat of the animals they house. California Condors fly free over the Grand Canyon today because of the LA and San Diego zoos. Przewalski’s Horses, the Arabian Oryx, Trumpeter swans and the European Bison are just a few examples of species that would be extinct today were it not for the conservation efforts of accredited zoos around the world. I am fortunate to live in a place that takes such conservation seriously, both regionally and globally; and much of it is indeed happening at the zoo.