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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zoo Review: Brevard Zoo

Halfway down the Atlantic coast of Florida, Melbourne is often overshadowed by the bigger cities of the state – Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville – which lure many of the snowbirds and tourists.   For those travelers who are passing through, however, it’s worth making a stop at one of the finest zoos that I’ve seen in a long time.  With a diverse collection of animals set in beautiful, lush exhibits  with a unique adventure-theme, the Brevard Zoo is an extraordinary place.

Upon entering the zoo, visitors will find themselves at a central pool, where Chilean flamingos squabble and strut.  From here they are presented with the option of heading down four trails, each taking them to meet animals from a different region of the world.  To enter Wild Florida, visitors take a low wooden boardwalk over a swampy lagoon, with American alligators on one side and the far rarer American crocodile on the other.  Once across, they travel a meandering trail past the habitats of river otters (with underwater viewing), red wolves, and alligator snapping turtles, among other Floridians.  A spacious mixed-species yard houses white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes, while non-releasable Florida raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and crested caracara, perch on trees scattered along the trail.


Upon being looped back into the center of the zoo, guests can encounter more exotic wildlife on La Selva trail.  Baird’s tapirs and giant anteaters are among the stars of this Neotropical trail, all found in densely planted enclosures, while capybara and coscoroba swans mill around a small pond.  Several mesh-enclosed aviaries house birds, sloths, and primates of various sizes, including king vultures and black-handed spider monkeys.  For many visitors, the star attractions are the jaguars, seen through viewing windows amid a boulder-strewn habitat.

Australasia opens up with wallabies, kangaroos, and emus in a dusty paddock, eventually feeding into a series of walk-through aviaries.  These house beautiful tropical birds not just from Australia but aronnd the world – lorikeets, hornbills, turacos, and waterfowl – as well as diminutive muntjac deer and fruit bats.  The trail ends up back at the wallabies, with two striking Australasians – cassowaries and Visayan warty pigs – across the trail.  As a finale, a small family of siamangs – the zoo’s only apes – can be seen on their island home.

Expedition Africa is the last of the four geographic trails.  It’s also the shortest, but featutres most of the zoo’s large animals. Starting up with some small-fry in the form of rock pythons and meerkats, the trail leads on to cheetah, white rhino, and Grevy’s zebra.  A sparsely-wooded savannah yard houses antelope and marabou storks, while giraffes can be seen at eye level from a viewing deck.  This deck also encloses an aviary that houses rock hyraxes among the birds.


A final, non-geographic area is Paws on Play, a children zoo/play park where kids can splash in the water, play with interactive devices, touch some domestics in a petting zoo, or meet one of the zoo’s animal ambassadors (unlike many zoos, these animals are typically on display when not on program use).  Also on zoo grounds, but off-view to the public, is the zoo’s sea turtle healing center, a facility devoted to the rehabilitation of sick or injured sea turtles.

The exhibits at Brevard Zoo are fantastic – apart from the Bronx Zoo, this might be the only zoo where I haven’t seen a single old-style enclosure that I thought really needed to be changed (probably attributable in part to its youth – it didn’t open until 1994).  What makes it truly unique, however, is the many opportunities for adventure and interaction.  Many zoos offer animal interactions – feed a giraffe, touch a stingray, let a lorikeet land on you – and Brevard does all of this (you can also pet a rhino!).  It also, however, offers special adventure tours.  Visitors to La Selva can zip-line their way through the jungle, checking out birds and monkeys at eye-level.  They can also kayak through Expedition Africa, not only getting an amazing view of the African animals, but also a chance to maybe observe some Florida wildlife as well. Or, take a paddleboat ride through the restored Florida wetlands.


None of this, of course, is meant to overshadow the tremendous conservation work done at Brevard.  Besides working with breeding programs and sending some money abroad, the zoo is very involved in the conservation of local species in need.  The sea turtle hospital is the most famous example, but the zoo also works with oyster restoration, Key Perdido beach mice, and diamondback terrapins, among other endangered natives.

Few - if any - zoos offer their visitors a chance to incorporate so much action, exploration, and interaction into their zoo visit as Brevard Zoo does.  It's a facility well worth keeping an eye on, as I suspect it will continue to prove a leader in taking the zoo guest experience to the next level.





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