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Friday, January 10, 2014

Zoo Review: Salisbury Zoo

Last month I took a break from the big zoos and aquariums to profile a smaller one.  Here's another.

Separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is like a state in itself.  The hustle and bustle of Baltimore and the DC suburbs are replaced with small towns, meandering rivers, and open agricultural lands.  This unique character is also reflected in the region's only zoo, located in the peninsula’s largest city.  One of the few remaining zoos that does not charge admission, the Salisbury Zoo displays a small but impressive collection of North and South American wildlife.

Located in a wooded park along a tributary of the Wicomico River, the Salisbury Zoo takes full advantage of its natural surroundings.  The zoo’s most attractive exhibits are the ones in which the local woods and waters are incorporated into the displays.   A pier takes visitors out over the water, where pelicans and swans mingle with free-ranging wild birds.  The exhibits of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and critically endangered red wolves are simply fenced in stretches of forest; how often do zoos get the chance to show their animals in their actual native habitat?  In what I considered to be the most beautiful exhibit, sandhill cranes wade through the shallows of the creek, ducking in and out of view behind the brush. 

Speaking of “ducks…”

I think it must be listed in the charter of the zoo, somewhere, that ducks must be placed in every enclosure, including any mixed-species exhibit where they won’t get eaten.   For such a small zoo, I counted nearly two dozen species of duck, goose, and swan, from little ruddy ducks dipping and diving in their pools to comical Orinoco geese to elegant black-necked swans.  I later learned that Salisbury is also home to a museum completely devoted to duck decoy carving, so I guess the zoo staff aren’t the only ones really, really into ducks.  Not judging – a little specialization never hurt anyone…

If ducks aren’t your thing, fear not – the zoo has a lot of non-waterfowl residents, including such perennial favorites as spider monkeys, alligators, flamingos, and bison.  Large carnivores are represented by red wolves (part of a display of native Eastern Shore wildlife), jaguars, and the Andean bears for which the zoo is perhaps best known (one female, recently deceased, earned local celebrity status as the oldest known Andean bear in the world, nearly 38 years old!). 

There are a lot of mixed-species exhibits (many involving ducks), which make for some very dynamic, interesting sights.  In one exhibit, cotton-top tamarins share an enclosure with agoutis and various South American ducks.  In another, beavers, turtles, owls, herons, and – you guessed it – more ducks share a wetland display.  Capybara, rhea, and guanaco roam another exhibit, while macaws screech from their perches in the middle of the yard.  In what was perhaps the most surprising mixed species exhibit that I’ve ever seen, herons and egrets flitted around basking alligators, sometimes perching within a foot of the giant reptiles (I did hear a lot of visitors wondering if the birds were actually gator food...).

If I had to offer one critique of the Salisbury Zoo, it would be that it lacked a certain cohesion.  Exhibits are arranged seemingly at random along meandering paths – some of the exhibits, such as the coatis, ocelots, and tamarins, I’m sure I would have missed if I hadn’t bumped into a zoo employee who mentioned them.  Apart from the native wildlife – beavers, otters, deer, wolves, eagles – located on the Delmarva Trail (“Delmarva” = Delaware + Maryland + Virginia, the name of the peninsula) and a Tropics Trail rainforest loop (featuring sloths, flamingos, and various birds), there are no grouped exhibit areas, no themes, no unified educational message.  The abundance of waterfowl, also, appears to be counterbalanced by an almost complete lack of reptiles and amphibians (alligators, iguanas, and a few turtles/tortoises are all I saw) – there is no reptile house, or any indoor exhibit areas, for that matter.  Being free of admission, the zoo is often used by residents as a nice place for a jog or stroll, taking in the sights of a few animals along the way.  It could be much more, though.  While most of the exhibits were very nice, there were one or two which look like they could stand to be replaced (bear and jaguar), but show me a zoo that doesn’t have an old exhibit or two.

As it is now, Salisbury is a beautiful small zoo with a lot of potential. The zoo’s collection is focused towards the Americas (which makes sense for a small zoo without the space for elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and other huge African and Asian mammals).  A new exhibit of red-necked wallabies, however, is announced as the start of a new Australian area, which will open in stages over the next few years.  It will be interesting to watch the Salisbury Zoo grow and develop in the years to come.  

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