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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Zoo Review: Brandywine Zoo

It's not a far drive from the Philadelphia Zoo to the Brandywine Zoo, Delaware's only zoological park.  While Philadelphia is a vast, sprawling zoo, as one would expect in such a large city, Brandywine is a rather tiny zoo, easily one of the smallest in the AZA.  After passing through the front gate, it took me all of five minutes of strolling to reach the end of the single path that the exhibits are arranged off of.

The best exhibit at Brandywine is probably the first one of the most visitors will see - a towering, sprawling flight cage for Andean condors.  The craggy enclosure is fronted with a covered seating area, and on the slow, rainy day when I visited, I could easily imagine large groups of school children being funneled through the gates and directed to this seating area, watching the giant vultures perch above them as their teachers and chaperones made last minute counts and plans.

The worst exhibit at Brandywine is almost certainly the tiger exhibit.  It really doesn't have much in the way of redeeming qualities.  It's small.  It's ugly.  It's unnatural.  And it doesn't even offer that great of a view of the tigers.  It occupies some of the key real estate in the zoo, and I imagine that, with sufficient funds, the zoo could do a lot with it - maybe try another cat species, like snow leopard or puma, which would allow for the exhibit to use vertical space more effectively.  As it stands, I would recommend the zoo either phase out the tigers or go all-in and commit to a better exhibit... and if they're going to do that, then they should communicate to the public that they're working on it.

The rest of the exhibits, scattered along the path that begins at condor and meanders past tiger, are a mixed bag of decent to mediocre.  Animals exhibited include bobcat, capybara, rhea, and toucans.  Some of the nicer habitats are the (new) red panda, bald eagle, and North American river otters exhibits, the later with underwater viewing.  The shabbiest are a few small bird cages which housed kestrels and parrots, wire closed in with Plexiglas.

I know this review probably comes across as pretty down on Brandywine, but I like to think that their star is on the rise.  The zoo suffered a major blow in 2013 when their Monkey House, the zoo's biggest exhibit area, was destroyed by a falling tree (thankfully no staff or animals have been hurt).  Since then, the zoo has been working on reinventing itself as a smaller, better zoo... which isn't to say that there hasn't been growth and change.  The new eagle and red panda exhibits are nice enough, as is a bee exhibit.  The zoo has been playing catch-up as far as the old Monkey House goes, hurrying to get small primates and reptiles back on display.  The longer term plan calls for a new rainforest building to be erected as a replacement.

I've worked in big zoos and small zoos over the course of my career, with a definite tilt towards more time in the smaller ones.  Small zoos have obvious disadvantages over big zoos - less space, less staff, fewer resources, and often smaller communities to draw support from.  That being said, they also have opportunities to show creativity, flexibility, and ambition that larger, more cumbersome facilities sometimes lack.  Brandywine definitely faces some challenges, but it also has great opportunity to became a great little zoo.  Steps taken over the last few years have been promising.  It'll be interesting to see where the future takes it.

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