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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zoo Review: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The city of Cleveland, Ohio is encircled with a necklace of natural areas, spanning over 21,000 acres; this is the Cleveland Metroparks system.  While the parks feature a variety of nature trails, fishing holes, golf courses, horseback trails, and cycling paths, its most popular attraction is the zoo.  Founded in 1882 and moved to its current location in 1907, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is one of several fine Ohioan zoos, though it is often overshadowed by Toledo and Cincinnati.  That's a shame, because its 180 acre campus, while holding some old exhibits in need of replacement, is still a true gem.

Perhaps the strangest exhibit in the zoo is its Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building, located on a hill overlooking the rest of the park.  Darkened hallways lead past galleries of aquarium tanks, including moon jellyfish, piranhas, and a porthole view into a large shark tank.  Other sections of the building are devoted to primates (mandrill, black spider monkey, Allen's swamp monkey, and Mueller's gibbons, among them), while another houses snow leopards.  Other animals featured include ayes-ayes and slow loris in a nocturnal wing, a Madagascar area with lemurs and fossa, and armadillos and sloths distributed among the exhibits.  I did mention some older exhibits and, dating back to the 1970's, this building is definitely showing its age.  Far nicer are the outdoor adjacent habitats for cheetah, red panda, and lowland gorilla.

Visitors can take a tram down the steep hill from the P-C-A Building to the rest of the zoo, or, if they are feeling adventurous, they can take a meandering boardwalk down through the woods.  It snakes from the top of the hill through the heavily forested hillside, providing a calm break from crowds of visitors.  The path will empty out at the Australian Adventure, where guests can meander through a grassy yard as red-necked wallabies, red and grey kangaroos, and black swans meander by.  A nearby Outback homestead keeps farm animals safely segregated from dingos.  The main Aussie attractions, however, are the koalas, which share a building with tree kangaroos and short-beaked echidnas.  The usually-sleeping koalas can be seen in an open-air habitat, which allows visitors to enjoy their unique, cough-medicine smell.

The newest major exhibit (but not for long) is African Elephant Crossing, an innovative habitat which features two elephant yards separated by a visitor path.  During certain times of the day, the visitors are shooed away and gates are swung out, linking the yards and allowing the elephants to stroll from one section of the exhibit into the other.  The elephants can also be seen in their barn, where visitors are treated to a behind-the-scenes peak at how keepers care for elephants.  This building also provides habitats for rock python and naked mole rats, while meerkats and an African aviary are outside.  The Crossing is just one part of an African Savannah, which also features lions, black rhinos, antelope, giraffes (which can be fed from a special feeding platform), and an island of Colobus monkeys.

At the northern end of the zoo is (appropriately) Northern Trek.  Polar bears (along with several other bear species - American black, brown, Andean, sun, and sloth) can be seen here in grottos, along with seals and sea lions.  There is also an impressive collection of rarely-displayed North Asian ungulates - onager, white-lipped deer, tufted deer, and reindeer, all in large, grassy, shaded yards.  The coolest exhibit by far, however, and one of the coolest exhibits I've ever seen, is Wolf Woods.  Mexican gray wolves share a mixed-species exhibit with beavers, which patrol a pond full of large river fish.  The animals can be viewed from a reconfigured hunting lodge (which serves now as a research station), from a long underwater-viewing window (which offers split-level, panoramic views of the two animals), or, in the case of the beavers, anyway, from a window into their lodge.   Andean condor and Steller's sea eagles inhabit towering flight cages nearby.

Last but not least is one of the zoo's most famous displays, The Rainforest, which serves as the nucleus of the reptile and amphibian collection.  After entering the imposing lobby, resembling the ruined facade of some lost temple, visitors may choose which level to explore first.  Most of the reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates (a leaf-cutter ant colony included) are on the ground floor, along with Egyptian fruit bats and an island of Indian crested porcupines.  The porcupines are subjected to occasionally thunder storms and rain showers via a sprinkler system overhead.  Also on the ground floor is an impressive stream-side habitat for gharial and various Asian river turtles, seen with excellent underwater viewing.  Upstairs, guests pass through a Bornean research station before entering a forest trail that houses various tropical mammals.  Giant anteater, capybara, fishing cat, ocelot, and small-clawed otters are all found here.  The experience ends with the habitats of two Asian primates - Francois langurs and Bornean orangutans in towering enclosures.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has some older exhibits, but I think their biggest problem is trying to do too much in too little space.  Yes, the campus is very roomy, but some of the exhibit areas are too clumped; perhaps, for example, many of the rather unimpressive indoor exhibits in the P-C-A Building could be merged to create larger habitats for primates, carnivores, and small mammals.  Perhaps instead of displaying five or six bear species in okay-yards, it would be better to have exhibits for two or three that are truly great.

Still, the zoo has an impressive commitment to conservation, both around the world (grants being distributed to dozens in projects in over thirty countries) and nearby (captive breeding and release of the endangered plains garter snake).  It must be admitted, the zoo's newer exhibits are fantastic - I raved over Wolf Woods for days after I saw it, and thought African Elephant Crossing was fairly impressive.  At the time of my visit, construction was underway for a new Amur tiger exhibit in Northern Trek, which I hope will equal or surpass the quality of these other new exhibits, and will hopefully pave the way for further renovation and development.

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