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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Zoo Review: Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Founded in 1892, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is one of the largest zoos in the northeast United States.  What started off as one big building filled with rows of cages is now spread across more than 70 acres of beautiful parkland, home to thousands of animals from around the world.
As its name implies, it has long been famed for its commitment to aquatic exhibits – the original 1967 AquaZoo (at the time home to the only Amazon River dolphins in the US) reopened in 2000 as the two-story PPG Aquarium.  One of the nation’s best zoo aquariums, it features innovative exhibits of fish and invertebrates, such as a crawl-thru tunnel underneath massive sting rays.  Popular displays include three species of Antarctic penguins, a sea turtle nursery, and a two-level ocean tank, home to sharks and barracuda.  More aquatic exhibits are found outside in the new Water’s Edge habitat, which provides above-and-underwater viewing of polar bears, sea otters, and sand tiger sharks (plans call for the addition of walruses, which are currently unavailable).

Apart from aquatic species, the zoo is renowned for its highly interactive children’s zoo – Kid’s Kingdom.  Considered one of the best children’s zoos in America, Kid’s Kingdom allows visitors – especially children – to experience animals on their terms and learn about animals by acting like them, such as crawling through burrows to observe meerkats.  Kids can climb and explore jungle gyms, watch sea lions, otters, and beavers swim underwater, walk among deer and kangaroos, or meet snakes and bats eye-to-eye.  A barnyard features domestic animals from around the world.
Other zoo animals are found throughout other themed areas of the zoo.  African Savannah has lions, black rhinos, antelope, and ostriches, cumulating in the giraffe and elephant house (Pittsburgh Zoo has a history of success in breeding African elephants).  The endangered big cats – Amur tiger, Amur leopard, and snow leopard – are the stars of the Asian Forest, though the new Komodo dragons offer some competition.  Aside from the aquarium, one of the zoo’s most famous exhibits is its Tropical Forest, where gorillas, Borneo orangutans, and mandrills are the most popular of the many species of primates on display. 

Pittsburgh Zoo does have its limitations, of course.  Most of its exhibits are the byproducts of its 1980’s renovation and master plan, meaning that some of them are beginning to get a tad dated (the bear dens, the oldest remaining exhibits, are still awaiting replacement).  Kid’s Kingdom and the Aquarium are nice new additions, but some of the other displays just seem a little bland; Tropical Forest was considered a masterpiece at the time of its creation, but the best part of it these days is seeing the gorillas in their outside yard (I wish that some of the other primates were so fortunate as to have their own outside access).  There really isn’t much of a bird or reptile/amphibian collection, though the former is partially excused by the presence of the excellent National Aviary, also in Pittsburgh.    
That being said, the facility is hardly sinking into decay – as it has renovated its children zoo and aquarium, so the other exhibits will also be renovated and replaced in time.  Meanwhile, the zoo can boast of displaying a conservation commitment matched by few other zoos in the region.  The zoo is involved in the field conservation of several flagship species in its collection, including polar bears and cotton-top tamarins, as well as African wild dogs (a species no longer at the zoo after an unfortunate incident in 2012).  The sea turtle head-start program is on public view at the aquarium, and the zoo is involved in the conservation of two native Western Pennsylvania aquatic species – the hellbender and the paddlefish.  A new off-exhibit conservation breeding facility (with an emphasis on elephants) is currently in the works.

I don’t make it out to Pittsburgh as often as I would like to, so sadly I don’t get to watch the zoo grow and develop like I do some others.  Still, I am sure that it will continue to flourish, reinventing itself as a great destination committed to wildlife conservation.  It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on!

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