Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Zoo part one

When I was 17 or so, I went to a big amusement park with my boyfriend. I don't remember which one, but it had the usual arrangement of roller-coasters and rides...which I LOVE. It also had a little train that traveled through a sort of zoo area. I clearly remember being in line, and being really excited. I was singing a little song in a silly voice. If I close my eyes and think back, I can practically hear the boyfriend's voice repeating after me, teasing me about my song..."the animals...the animals...we're going to see the animals."

I don't remember much about the train ride itself...or what we saw from our car. I only know that it made me very sad. That was the day I decided that zoos were bad and I would never step foot inside one again.

When I was 17, the world seemed as black and white as zebras, and "never" was a reasonable time line for spur-of-the-moment decisions.

I have since learned to appreciate zoos, but I will probably never again feel bubbling excitement on my way inside one. Instead, I approach them with a kind of regretful reverence and cautious curiosity.

The problem, of course, is the persistent impression that these animals are in jail. It's so easy to start thinking, "They didn't do any thing wrong! Why are they in cages? Let's set them free! Free! Free!"

When I went to the Charles Paddock Zoo last month with my 10-year-old friend, S, I practically held my breath as we walked through the entrance. I really wanted us to have a nice time, and see some things that wouldn't depress us.

I think the zoo planners must have been thinking of people like me when they designed the layout, because the first animals we saw didn't seem to be in jail at all. They were just sitting out in the open, free to leave at any time. (At least, that's the way they looked. It didn't occur to me until just now that their flight wings may have been clipped.) Anyway, they were gorgeous, and fun to watch.

I'm not sure who that is above, but I had to include the photo because he is just so pretty. The ones below are Blue and Gold Macaws (Ara Ararauna). They are disappearing in the wild because the forests are being cut down, and because they get snatched by illegal pet traders.

Aren't they lovely? How do they get so colorful?

Then next exhibit was a small flock of flamingos. Their placard explained how their pinkness is derived from carotenoids in the crustaceans they eat.

But there wasn't any card explaining how the parrots make those blue, gold and green feathers!

Neither was their a sign telling us that the flamingo's food isn't pink when they are eating it, as I have always imagined. Rather, the color that shows up in the live prey is usually blue or green. The pink pigment doesn't show up until the carotenoids are dissolved in the flamingo's fat, and deposited into the growing feathers. This sounds strange, until you remember how shrimp and lobsters look when they are raw...kind of greenish brown...and how they look when they are cooked...bright red or pink! Apparently, heat from cooking and digestion by flamboyant birds (or salmon) are somewhat similar processes. (I just learned all that by searching for more info on-line.)

On this same side of the zoo there is also an enclosed and roofed area that is easy to miss if you are not looking for it. This is a somewhat sadder display, because it's clear these flightful creatures can't just escape on their own.

Still, I enjoyed it, especially the first bird I saw. I nearly gasped with delight, because I knew right away what it was...a red-legged, white-bellied, Black Necked Stilt!

Apparently, these bird are wild local residents. For months, I've been making googley eyes at the ones in my field books, greedily anticipating the day when I might spot one of my own! (I used the word greedy because there are SO many amazing birds here that I do see regularly, it seems almost ridiculous to be begging for more.)

It was a big thrill to see this one up close and personal. But, I can't really add it to my "life list" anymore than I can boast to other birders about spotting a pair of Macaws from South America.

There were several other interesting species in the aviary. But, other than a white Ibis, I couldn't identify them. (I don't know why they wouldn't just stand still in front of their placards!)

I was particularly enamored with this little trio. They reminded me of soldiers, in brown jackets and black helmet...guarding a castle gate.

We must have looked okay, because they let us pass, and re-enter the main area...where we could determine who was the winner of a little contest we had going.

Before we got to the zoo, S and I tried to guess what kinds of animals we would see when we got there. I think I said zebras (none), ostrich (nada), and honey badger (nope.) S however, predicted we would see Meerkats, and she was absolutely right. (You win, Gingersnap!)

These omnivorous Slender Tailed Meerkats, with the amusingly repetitive Latin name: Suricata suricatta, are type of South African mongoose. I suppose they didn't build it themselves, but I still have to say, I just love their house!

I also loved the way they would sprawl out on the sand like sunbathers. Because their enclosure was only about 5 feet high, I could easily hold my camera up over it to take a picture. I didn't think the little guys would notice, but boy, did they! The one shown below looked so calm and relaxed before I put my hand over the edge...but as soon as I did, his head spun around so fast I worried I might have given him whiplash!

It's no wonder they are jumpy about sudden movement above. Their greatest enemies are vultures and birds of prey. Sorry, Mr. Meerkat!

I'm sure you'll think it predictably egotistical of me when I admit that, of all fascinating fauna we saw that day, my favorite captive citizens were the ones that seemed almost human. In addition to the sunbathing Meerkats, I was absolutely charmed by the White Fronted Marmosets.

I wish I'd gotten a better picture. In this one, his pensive little face is hardly visible. And it's hard to see that these little guys were some of the most active of all the animals we saw that day. They were literally climbing the walls, and carousing around on the raised platforms and walkways of their carefully arranged environment like it was a tri-level speedway.

This Black Handed Spider Monkey wasn't nearly as energetic, but he was just as fascinating.

S and I sat down on a bench where we had a clear view of him sitting up on a branch. He looked just as comfortable as we were, and just as interested. Staring at him, feeling him staring at me, I couldn't help but start to wonder...who was watching who? Which one of us was the entertainment and which one of us was being entertained? It was like looking in a fun house mirror...but instead of seeing the kind of "before" and "after" versions of myself that would sell diet pills, it was like seeing "before" and "after" version of myself as Darwin would have drawn them. I felt if I could just remove the mirror, we would be revealed to be exactly the same.

I was jostled from my fantastic reverie when the monkey suddenly reached behind himself and took hold of a large poo, just as it was coming out of his butt. He raised it to his nose for a sniff, and then gave it a few turns, considering it from every angle.

Suddenly, I didn't feel so connected to him. I knew that no matter how long we sat their, neither S or I were going to take a poo. And if we did, we certainly weren't going to roll it around in our palms. (Maybe that is why these Spider Monkeys are called Black-Handed.)

When we resumed our stroll through the park-like menagerie, we were able to observe and learn about animals from all over the world, including Emus and Wallabys (Australia), Two Toed Sloths and Prehensile Tailed Porcupines (South America), Aldabra tortoises (Indian Ocean Islands), Crested Porcupines and Red River Hogs (Africa), Prevosts Squirrel (Southeast Asia) and a Burmese Python (China).

There were even a couple of creatures that were completely new to me. Did you know that the Fossa is the top predator on the island of Madagascar? And have you heard of the "stotting" Patagonian Cavies? They look like little deer, but are related to Guinea Pigs. They can achieve high speeds over long distances by bouncing along on all four limbs at once.

It looked like the zoo-keepers had taken care to make the animals comfortable. The cages and enclosures were all arranged to look and feel like a natural habitat, except for this one.

I guess they figured that livestock has been living with humans for so long that a barnyard IS their natural environment. And I have to agree with them. The animal pictured above is one of their Jacob Sheep, a "Heritage Breed" that may have originated in what is now Syria some 3,000 years ago. This display also held alpacas, which Andean societies began domesticating as many as 6,000 years ago!

So, I didn't feel bad about seeing these two species "in-jail." In fact, they looked a lot cleaner, healthier and happier than the pot-bellied-ponies or whatever it is they have at the Avila Valley Barn Farm Store.

to be continued...

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