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Monday, January 12, 2015

Zoo Review: Philadelphia Zoo

There is mild controversy over which facility can claim the title of oldest zoo in the United States.  Some people say New York's Central Park Zoo, others Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.  The honor, however, is usually bestowed upon another candidate.  Regardless of when other claimants actually began displaying animals, the Philadelphia Zoo differs in one major respect - it did not start off as a pair of swans, or a few cast-off pets.  When its gates opened in 1874 (it was chartered in 1859, but the opening was delayed by an inconvenient Civil War), it opened as a large, fully-stocked, well-planned zoological park, something akin to what we would think of as a zoo today.

Located in Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo retains much of its Victorian character, even in the face of modernization.  No exhibit displays this better than the zoo's signature exhibit, Big Cat Falls.  The zoo's old Carnivora House - once filled with tiled cages and heavy iron bars - now lies at the center of a sprawling compound that houses six species of big cat - lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and puma.  The old cat house now serves as the night house for the animals.  A unique characteristic which is becoming Philadelphia Zoo's signature is the series of overhead tunnels and ramps, which allow the cats to move from enclosure to enclosure, sometimes directly over the heads of zoo visitors.  Other cats found at the zoo include cheetahs, Canada lynx, and diminutive black-footed cats.  The lynx and black-foots are part of a series of exhibits called Carnivore Kingdom, which also includes red pandas, coatis, and giant otters.  Philadelphia has a special history with giant otters - it was the first zoo to breed this species, a success which has gradually resulted in this species becoming more common in American zoos.

Like many older zoos (particularly those in the northeast, where winters are especially cold), much of the animal collection in Philadelphia is located in taxonomically-themed animal houses.  The Reptile House boasts of an exceptionally large collection of crocodilians, from Chinese alligators to Nile crocodiles, as well as king cobras, Chinese crocodile lizards, and endangered bog turtles.  During the warmer months, Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises plod about in a yard directly outside.  The nearby Small Mammal House features various rodents; pygmy lorises and vampire bats are found in a nocturnal hallway, while a pair of large, open-air displays at the rear of the building feature African (aardvark, meerkat) and South American (agouti, sloth) mammals.  Visitors to the newly renovated McNeil Avian Center are greeted by a towering display of rhinoceros hornbills before passing through a series of walk-through aviaries.  Penguins, flamingos, and waterfowl are found outdoors.

On Christmas Eve, 1995, a fire in the zoo's World of Primates building killed every monkey, ape, and lemur in the building, one of the zoo community's worst tragedies (an excellent account of this can be found in Jeffrey Bonner's Sailing with Noah).  Three-and-a-half years later, the zoo opened its new Peco Primate Reserve, home to gorillas, orangutans, langurs, and aye-ayes, among other residents.  Unlike many primate houses, this exhibit does not attempt to replicate a rainforest or other natural habitat; the  building is very utilitarian - ropes, cargo nets, straw piles - but while it may not be especially aesthetically pleasing (it honestly looks like an abandoned warehouse), it appears to satisfy the animal occupants.  More primates (including the nation's only douc langurs), as well as bats and naked mole rats, are seen in the Rare Animal Conservation Center.

Other displays around the zoo include a series of bear habitats (including polar bears with underwater viewing), red kangaroos, okapi, and an African savannah featuring addax, giraffe, white rhino, zebra, and the first hippos that I'd seen in a long time.  A brand new children zoo features domestic animals, as well as a budgie aviary where visitors can feed parakeets.  One of the most popular features of the zoo is a non-animal one - a hot-air balloon that gives visitors a panoramic view of the zoo and surrounding city.

At 140 years old, Philadelphia Zoo's age is showing in some areas, and it has a few older, or at least "uninspired" exhibits (much of the Small Mammal House comes to mind).  That being said, considering its advanced age, it actually struck me as being in remarkable shape.  The zoo has shown considerable ingenuity in updating its facilities - Big Cats, Birds, Children Zoo - in recent years.  The current plan is rework almost the entire zoo along the "Zoo 360" guidelines currently being used with the big cats and primates, allowing all sorts of animals to traverse the zoo and move from habitat to habitat.  The idea has been used at other zoos, but never before has an entire facility been planned around this concept.  It's this sort of unique vision which makes Philadelphia a zoo to watch closely in the years to come.

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