It’s all happening at the zoo. . . . part 2

posted in: Serendipity, Travel | 6

One of the things I especially liked about the Sedgwick County Zoo, in Wichita, Kansas, is its dedication to both wild and domesticated animals. Too often the efforts to conserve one ecosystem come at the expense of another.

Not so here. I covered one aspect of this story in part 1, where I showed some elements of my visit to the American, African, and Asian farm areas. These diverse and educational collections support conservation of rare livestock breeds, while allowing human/animal interactions that respect the animals' need for appropriate protection and "alone" (or else "with my own kind but not so many people") time.

On my next foray into the zoo grounds, I kept going straight past the entrance to the farm section and soon found myself with this view:

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Oh!

I don't have a fancy camera. I have a Canon A540. It has a little zoom on it, but it pretty much captures what I'm looking at just standing there in the world, with no assistance from specialized viewing tools like telephoto lenses.

That bear was THERE! Grizzly, too. The black bears, the kind where I live, were a bit farther along the trail. I haven't spent a lot of time in zoos in recent years, but during the visits that I have made there was nowhere near the sense of immediacy in how I saw this bear. And the experience continued through the rest of my visits (I managed several over the three days of the ALBC annual meeting).

I simply wandered. I didn't make a comprehensive tour of the zoo. I wanted to be outside, and that was a priority in how I rambled.

So I saw the river otters, while they were being fed.

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The glass got in the way of a good photo here (reflections, plus lots of splashing of water on its inside surface). The zookeeper was making the otters work for their food: hiding it in the tree-like structures, throwing it in the water, and so on. The several otters seemed to enjoy the game. It was what I think watching pro soccer might be like (we don't have much television reception, and I don't sit still long enough to watch many broadcast sporting events . . . even with knitting in hand).

Farther along, there's a bridge over a waterway (boats operate in warmer seasons) that also let me look down into the habitat where the Mexican wolves live.

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The zoo has had a litter of wolf pups, one of whom was released into the wild in the Southwest and formed a pack.

There were other fiber suppliers in this area: the bison.

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Because it was fall and a mellow sort of day, most of the animals seemed relaxed (except the otters: I'm not sure they ever relax, except when they're sleeping).

A photo on the zoo's site of the cougars, which looks almost identical to this picture that I took, suggests that these cats get along with each other really well. (The photo I'm referring to isn't the one on the zoo's cougar information page, although that one caught them cozied up, too.)

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We have these critters in the wild where I live, although we call them mountain lions. They are a reason to know how to behave when hiking or running in mountain lion country, and a reason not to leave children, house cats, or medium-to-small dogs outside alone. I love that these big cats live in the Rocky Mountains, yet I'd just as soon not meet one when I'm out for a walk. (Notes: Pick up a rock to throw as a defensive tactic before you think you might see a cat; if you wait for the need to arise, it'll be too late. Or carry a hiking stick. The point is to look BIGGER than you are, and not to either back away or run.) I am concerned that we humans are severely reducing these animals' natural habitat by building houses on top of their invisible-to-us homes. That practice significantly increases cat/human conflicts, and then we blame them!

Next I watched the meerkats for a while. They have complex social structures that the zookeepers need to pay close attention to. There are currently two separate meerkat communities at this zoo and never the twain shall mix, although the groups can see each other through the glass barriers that keep everything relatively calm.

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While I enjoyed the proximity to the animals the zoo provides, I also appreciated the educational material that is incorporated into the exhibits that reminds people that they are wild animals.

In the early morning, the African wild dogs avidly attacked their food.

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When I went by later in the day, they were napping in the shade.

This is a lion CUB, born at the zoo not all that long ago. Yes, I was about two feet away and we were both pretty relaxed, although I was only relaxed because of the structural intervention.

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Earlier I'd watched this young one working on a meal.

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In this next picture, the woman with the camera is standing almost exactly where I was when I took the first cub photo. Makes one feel a whole lot like prey. The small (?) one's parents also live in this section of the zoo. The lioness is apparently the one with the most serious attitude issues, which she arrived here with. She's apparently mellowed somewhat, although I wouldn't want to count on that. The zookeepers sure don't.

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The Malayan tiger . . . well, this guy looked even more imposing than the lions, if that's possible. And, according to the zoo keepers, he's even more of a force to be reckoned with. And that's saying a lot.

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Visiting with the giraffes was much less edgy.

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The cool, fall weather meant that the zoo was relatively quiet and all the animals seemed content and most were almost on vacation: alert, but not showing off.

This red panda could have withdrawn inside its shelter more thoroughly, but I think it was enjoying a time when it could keep an eye on the world while also having a rest.

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Those of us participating in the ALBC conference were offered the opportunity to take some behind-the-scenes tours. I signed up for a couple on Sunday morning before starting the drive home.

The elephants, both about 40 years old, are Cinda and Stephanie. This is Cinda, who got to be the one who interacted with us. Stephanie, the dominant (although smaller) elephant, had been able to show off for the previous group.

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I got to feed Cinda several times, and to stroke her side. She has amazing skin! The elephants have several hours a day of school, with operant conditioning (for those of us more familiar with dogs, this is clicker training, although Cinda responds more to verbal praise, and food treats, than to clicks). The training has several purposes, including intellectual stimulation, exercise, and patterning of behaviors that are useful in veterinary care. Some of the activities are just plain fun for elephant and human alike. (That's Stephanie in the background, sulking just a bit because she's not the focus of attention.)

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As part of our tour, we met one critter who is not on display because of health concerns. This antelope-type creature is one of the last of his kind, and there will be no more. The population levels have dropped too low, and attempts to keep the species going through zoo-based breeding have resulted in young with serious genetic problems, especially heart defects. Further efforts are being abandoned. It was sobering to be face-to-face with a living being that represents the last step before extinction. I was stunned enough that I missed the animal's name and forgot to ask, and because we were in a private area there were no signs to help me out.

Just after the elephants, however, we had met (and fed banana chunks, peels and all, to) Eugene, an Eastern black rhinoceros, another endangered species. My photo of Eugene is lousy. Eugene was a delight.

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Having a black rhino eat out of my hand was amazing—even more than elephant feeding (which was unquestionably cool). These rhinos have prehensile upper lips. Eugene was delicate and precise in his acquisition of the banana sections.

Eugene is an old man—38 years—and retired, living out his days being pampered by the zoo keepers. His bones are achey, so thanks to a private donor he now has a rubberized floor in his area. He has contributed to the continuation of his species and his offspring are now at a number of different locations. I was impressed with the amount of knowledge of animal behavior and care for the individual animals among the human cohort at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

That's one reason that they don't do operant conditioning with the Grevy's zebras, who look equine and familiar from the other side of the fence but are not predictable enough for close interaction to be a wise, safe idea for the humans.

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After the tours, the earlier of which included the greenhouse and a glimpse of the veterinary facilities, both in areas where photos were not possible, I took a meandering path out of the grounds. It was a sleepy sort of day, as demonstrated by the ruddy shelducks. . . .

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. . . and the bar-headed geese.

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My trip to the zoo missed huge portions of it. I didn't see the primates, the amphibians and reptiles, the jungle area, the penguins, or the Australian or South American sections. In warmer seasons, as I mentioned above when I talked about the Mexican wolves, there's a boat that carries people across a lake; I think it runs from the North American area to the African exhibits. That sounds like fun.

On the other hand, because it was fall and cool, the place was relatively quiet. I had the wonderful and unusual treats of seeing behind-the-scenes areas and of feeding Cinda and Eugene, and learning more about this zoo's work on the conservation of wild species and of rare domesticated breeds of livestock.

I'm not sure when I'll be near Wichita again, but another trip to this zoo is something I look forward to.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for telling us all about this very cool zoo! The next time I am in that area I will have to check it out!

  2. Plan to spend a bunch of time, Sarah Jane, possibly in several passes. There's a whole lot to see. If there's a way to get a behind-the-scenes tour (I have no idea whether that's an option if you contact them in advance), that's so cool. But not essential to a fine experience.

  3. Thank you, Deb – that reminds me of times when I’ve seen otters and mink in the wild. I think I’m due for some long walks soon.

  4. You're welcome, Lynn, and I'm glad you enjoyed this! I've never seen a mink in the wild, but I have seen an ermine, when I was hiking near the Tarryall River in Park County, Colorado, and I get a huge kick out of sea otters (Alaska). We have muskrats here, although I haven't seen one in a while.

  5. What a fabulous zoo, with such apparently respect and care for its inhabitants. Thank you for this thoughtful and sobering post.

  6. Freyalyn, there are other good zoos and zoo-like facilities. Another one I loved was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. I didn't get the behind-the-scenes view there, but I *did* visit several times during my time in the area, twice when it was raining and thus quiet. I'm not very much into just seeing the animals; I'm interested in understanding the ways in which this is their home, and a community formed by several species (including humans) cohabiting and interacting. The animals' real home is, of course, in the wild, although humans have compromised their natural situations in so many ways. In a way, I see the zoo residents as ambassadors to our kind.

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