Up until now, the zoos and aquariums reviewed here – National, Bronx, Audubon – have been big ones, some of the biggest in the country, in fact. There are, however, many excellent small zoos and aquariums around the country, so today I decided to highlight one of them.
Bridgeport, Connecticut was home to P. T. Barnum, the renowned showman whose name is now best known for its attachment to the famous circus. While at home, Barnum exercised his animals in the city park. Years later, that park became home to a city zoo, which today is one of the finest small zoos in the Northeast. Beardsley Zoo (the only zoo in Connecticut) specializes in animals of the Americas, though East Asia also makes an appearance in the collection in the form of two great cat exhibits – Amur tigers and Amur leopards.
It was winter when I first visited Beardsley Zoo, so I straight away went to the one indoor animal exhibit – the Rainforest. A lot of zoos attempt rainforest exhibits, but many of them I find disappointing – zoo designers have a hard time resisting the urge to fill these buildings with large mammals, which destroy the plants and make the “rainforest” a desert. Beardsley’s building, however, doesn’t fall into this trap – the building is filled with several attractive exhibits of small rainforest creatures, many of them in mixed species exhibits. Several kinds of monkeys – Goeldi’s, golden lion tamarins, sakis, howlers – climb through branches while toucans, ibises, teals, and parrots flit about. Waterfall-fed pools house caimans and mata mata turtles. Side displays include frogs, snakes, pygmy marmosets, and vampire bats. Perhaps the star of the building is the ocelot (interesting fact: the world’s first successful artificial insemination of an ocelot took place at Beardsley Zoo!).
Immediately outside the Rainforest is a yard of Chacoan peccaries, an interesting pig-like species not commonly seen in zoos. If the outdoors are still too cold and gray for visitors, a beautiful, historic greenhouse is only a dash away.
Those visitors who do opt to stay outside will be well rewarded. A looping trail passes by hoofstock and large carnivores – tigers and leopards, pronghorn and bison and deer. Prairie dogs, eagles, alligators, and imposing Andean condors round out the collection. One of the coolest exhibits in my opinion was a cozy viewing bunker, which allowed visitors to peer out into the habitats of not one but two critically endangered wolves – the red and the Mexican gray (both wolves that zoos have partnered with the USFWS to reintroduce into the wild). A third wild canine – stunning maned wolves – are across the path.
Amur leopards are the newest addition to the zoo, but more new exhibits are coming. As I toured the zoo, I passed by a sign announcing a new Andean bear exhibit, while another sign described the upcoming Pampas exhibit, providing a new home for the peccaries, as well as new rheas and giant anteaters (the South American grasslands – home to amazing species – are one of those amazing habitats that are too often ignored by zoos).
A small zoo like Beardsley is unlikely to have the big budget and financial backing of a huge zoo like the Bronx. Its campus is limited – something that really hinders the ability to add the largest of animals, like elephants and rhinos – and each new addition must be planned carefully. There were a handful of exhibits that looked like they could use a replacing (that being said, those are at every zoo). Taken as a whole, I was extremely impressed with Beardsley. Its Rainforest building was one of the best I had seen. Its collection was small but diverse (I mean, apart from three wolves) and full of species that are of great conservation value to zoos. Its new exhibits show innovation and a willingness to try things that haven’t been done before. Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo is a great example of a smaller zoo that can have big plans and do great things. I can’t wait to see how the zoo develops over the next few years!