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Monday, December 15, 2014

Zoo Review: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Opening its gates in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanic Garden is the second-oldest zoo in the United States.  It's impossible to stroll around the zoo without being reminded of its history, whether you are looking at the architechture (the Reptile House, constructed in 1875, is the oldest zoo animal building in the US) or the wildlife (reminders of Cincinnati's long history of "firsts", both in terms of exhibitions and captive breedings, including the first zoo births of American bison, California sea lion, and trumpeter swan).  Its history has sadder chapters as well - the facility marks the place where the last individuals of two species - the passenger pigeon (1914) and the Carolina parakeet (1918) died.

The zoo grounds themselves are a juxtaposition of new and old.  Ornate, Victorian-era animal houses are filled with naturalistic exhibits, while many of the newer zoo displays are truly astonishing. The Wings of the World bird house displays birds in a series of geographically themed habitats, ranging from the African savannas to the sub-Antarctic coastlines.  Two walk-in aviaries transport visitors to two very different rainforests - Latin America (with golden conures, sunbitterns, and cock-of-the-rocks) and Australasia (home to crowned pigeons, rhinoceros hornbills, and flying foxes).  The building is especially noteworthy for its displays of Arctic and Antarctic birds - puffins, sea ducks, Inca terns, and three species of penguin roost of the rocks or dive in their pools in front of visitors.  Outside, an interactive aviary features mischievous kea, alpine parrots from New Zealand.

King penguins in the World of Wings sub-Antarctic exhibit

Equally impressive was the reptile house, where Chinese alligators are the centerpiece of the single round room.  Unlike many zoo reptile houses, which tend to be dark and hushed, this was light and airy, complements of the great skylights overheard (probably explained by the fact that this was built as a monkey house, not a reptile house).  The collection of venomous snakes, including king cobra, rhinoceros viper, and Aruba island rattlesnakes, is especially noteworthy.  Outdoors, Galapagos tortoises plod through their yard (in warmer months), while Japanese macaques scramble over a rocky island.  More reptiles can be found in two other buildings - a separate building for monitor lizards (with Komodo dragons as the star occupants) and Manatee Coast, home to American alligators, American crocodiles, alligator snapping turtles, and many smaller herps of the Everglades.  Of course, in this building it is the manatees that are the star - Cincinnati is one of the only inland zoos in the country to display the lovable aquatic mammals, removed to captive settings due to injuries obtained in the wild.

A child watches a manatee scratching its backside against the glass in the underwater gallery of Manatee Coast

Perhaps the most innovating animal house in Cincinnati is World of the Insect, not the first insect house in the zoo world but certainly one of the best.  Visitors can wander through a butterfly garden, watch leaf-cutter ants carry their food through acrylic tunnels, and find out how much they way in insects.  The most popular animals in here are (typically) not insects (or even arachnids... though there are lots of those in here too), but the naked mole-rats, used as an example of an insect-like mammal.

Leaf-cutter ants at work in World of the Insect

Cincinnati is perhaps most famous for its cats above any other residents, and the zoo doesn't disappoint cat-lovers: over a dozen species are represented here.  There are two exhibits of lions, as well as outdoor homes for tigers (including white Bengal tigers... hence Cincinnati's football team), snow leopards, and pumas.  Most of the others are kept inside one of the zoo's newest displays - Night Hunters.  Down darkened hallways, an impressive collection of nocturnal creatures are found, including many cats - sand cat, black-footed cat, fishing cat, Pallas cat, clouded leopard... There are, of course, some non-cats, including fennec and bat-eared foxes, hyena-like aardwolves, vampire bats, binturongs (think University of Cincinnati's mascot, the "bear-cats"), and Eurasian eagle owls.  The largest display features bushbabies and flying foxes scrambling through the treetops, while aardvarks meander below.

A bat-eared fox in Night Hunters

Even more nocturnal creatures are found in Jungle Trails, a recreated-rainforest of Southeast Asian and African wildlife.  Along the meandering jungle trail (complete with interactive play features for kids), bonobos, Sumatran orangutans, gibbons, and lion-tailed macaques can be found.  Two buildings - one for Africa, one for Asia - feature indoor housing for these animals, as well as separate displays for small animals - lemurs, genets, snakes.  Cincinnati was the first US zoo to display aye-ayes, possibly the most extraordinary of Madagascar's lemurs... and some of the hardest to display.  I must of had super-luck the day that I visited, because I was able to actually see the alien-like animals (keepers that I talked to from other departments said that some of them have never seen them in years of walking by the display).  Additional primates are found in the Gorilla World, where a troop of gorillas roams a spacious yard with lots of climbing structures, with colobus monkeys and guenons in side displays.

If there is one animal that brought me to Cincinnati above any other, it would have been Harapan - currently the one, the only Sumatran rhino in the world outside of Indonesia.  He and his siblings (since headed back to Indonesia) were the only members of their species ever conceived and born outside of their native range... and he will probably be the last.  Earlier plans to import more Sumatran rhinos to the US have fallen through, and ol' Harry is going to Indonesia.  His exhibit (admittedly unimpressive and plain for such a remarkable animal) is in Wildlife Canyon, also home to Bactrian camels, Przewalski's horses, takin, and Visayan warty pigs, as well as towering flight cages of Andean condor and Steller's sea eagles.  Other large mammals occupy dusty yards in the middle of the zoo - bongo, okapi, Grevy's zebra, and black and Indian rhino.

Other animal attractions at Cincinnati included the red pandas, gibbon islands, Asian elephants, and Children's Zoo, home to barnyard animals.  Nearby Wolf Woods features Mexican wolves and river otters, with sea lions nearby.

Overall, I was bedazzled by Cincinnati.  In a lifetime of visiting zoos, I was still amazed at how many animals I saw here that I've never seen elsewhere.  The grounds were beautiful (hence the addition of "Botanical Garden" to the name.  The place was swarming with volunteers and docents, eager to answer questions.  Cincinnati's commitment to conservation is also beyond reproach - there were lots of educational graphics about conservation, lots of chances to donate to specific causes, and lots of information about field work supported by Cincinnati.  The zoo is also home to C.R.E.W. - Center for the Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife - which is responsible for tremendous advances in our knowledge of endangered animals, especially cats and rhinoceroses.  That being said...

Many of the zoo's exhibits are great... some are pretty bad.  Mostly, I'm thinking of the bear grottos, where American black bears, an Andean bear, and polar bears (in the overly grandiose-sounding "Lords of the Arctic") are rather bare and uninspired, to say nothing of pretty small.  The gorilla exhibit was great... the side-exhibits for monkeys... less so.  I loved the reptile house, but I couldn't help but thinking that the alligator exhibit in the center could have stood some expansion (the problem with these old buildings... once they've stood for long enough, they become sacred and no one can touch them).

Ironically, it was one of the newest buildings - Night Hunters - which frustrated me the most.  When given the choice to keep carnivores indoors versus outdoors, I usually would opt for outdoors - more space, more stimulation - but I can understand why Cincinnati did what they did - wanting to use nocturnal lighting to increase animal activity.  It's just that it felt like they tried putting too much in one building, and some of the displays - I'm thinking of the caracal and bobcat, mostly - seemed like they would have been better... left out completely, the space divided up among other animals.

I'm normally kinda disapproving of white tigers in zoos... but considering everything that Cincinnati does for cat conservation, I feel like I just need to let this one go

I hate ending things on a bad-note, especially for such an overall wonderful zoo, so that's why I saved the zoo's newest exhibit area for last.  Africa features grassy pastures for giraffes, impala, greater flamingos, and several African birds, as well as spacious displays for lions, African wild dogs, and bat-eared foxes (the bat-eared fox exhibit here compares so favorably with the one in Night Hunters.  Cheetahs are one of the stars here, and Cincinnati is famous for its cheetah run demonstrations, allowing visitors to see the cats at top speed.  The final phase is currently under construction; when it is completed, the zoo will be bringing back hippos, which will be seen from underwater viewing windows.

Once Africa is done, I hope the zoo will revisit some of its more neglected areas, securing its title as one of America's best zoos.

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