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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Zoo Review: Saint Louis Zoo

As one would expect from a person who writes a blog called "The Zoo Review", I have visited a lot of zoos.  No where near all of them - maybe a fifth or a quarter of the AZA accredited ones alone - but almost certainly more than most people not in the profession would have been to.  It's always hard to pick a favorite, so I don't try.  I can, however, remember the first time I visited a zoo and was completely blown away.  That was the first time I visited the St. Louis Zoo.

Even today, having two dozen more zoos and aquariums under my belt, it still remains one of my absolute favorites, both in terms of its beautiful exhibits, spectacular collection, and phenomenal commitment to wildlife conservation.  The St. Louis Zoo is located in beautiful Forrest Park, home to many of the city's other cultural attractions - the art museum, the history museum, the science museum, and the outdoor theater.  All are free to the public, including the zoo.

Among the most spectacular exhibits of the zoo is the River's Edge area, a ten-acre trail that replaced the zoo's old pachyderm exhibits.  United by the theme of water, the trail takes visitors on a meandering walk across four continents.  Visitor walk through densely planted pathways; by keeping your eyes open, you can spot not only the exhibit animals, but special wildlife "clues" hidden along the path, such as the nest of a king cobra, or a (fake) impala carcass, stashed up a tree by a leopard.  In the South American portion, giant anteaters and capybara share an enclosure.  A nearby display holds one of their natural predators - the bush dog.  This was the first time I'd ever seen bush dogs, and watching them leap over one another nimbly, tumbling into their pool and clambering out, was one of my favorite memories of my visit.  In the African area, black rhinos, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas can be found, along with side enclosures of carmine bee-eaters and dwarf mongooses.  The stars of the region, however, are the hippos, which can be observed through underwater viewing windows, surrounded by swarms of fish.  If the hippos have any rivals as the stars of the trail, its the breeding herd of Asian elephants located just past them.  The elephants can be seen from the trail or from the zoo's railroad, which passes by a second, larger habitat for them.  River's Edge terminates closer to home, ending with a large aquarium display of native Missouri fishes.  The exhibit area has recently been added to with the addition of habitats for three endangered carnivores - Andean bears, sun bears, and African wild dogs.

More large carnivores can be seen across the zoo in the region known as Red Rocks.  In Big Cat Country, open air enclosures house lions, tigers, and jaguars (this is the only jaguar exhibit I have ever seen that wasn't enclosed with mesh - not coincidentally, it was the largest I've ever seen), while netted-in habitats house snow leopard and leopard.  Sprawling past the big cats is one of the most impressive ungulate (hoofed mammal) collections I have ever seen, accompanied by tall birds.  Zoo favorites such as giraffe, Grevy's zebra, and Bactrian camels can be found here, along with much rarer, less-well known species, such as okapi, takin, addax, Somali wild ass, and bongo, as well as the lesser kudu, which serves as the zoo's logo.  Many of these animals can be seen in the Antelope House during the winter months.  It's nowhere near as cool as seeing the herds spread out in their paddocks, but you'll never be so completely surrounding by awesome ungulates no matter where you go.

Like many older zoos, St. Louis is still in possession of a full set of animal houses - Bird House, Reptile House, Primate House - of the sort that have since gone out of style at many facilities.  Like the Antelope House, however, they are packed with a unique ensemble of creatures, many of which you will find at few other US zoos.  The Bird House, for instance, has a dazzling collection that includes great Indian hornbills, horned guans, Micronesian kingfishers, and king vultures, both inside as well as in its outdoor Bird Gardens.  Also outside is the spectacular 1904 Flight Cage, built for the 1904 World's Fair (which, among its other attractions, introduced an African pygmy named Ota Benga to the United States) and predating the zoo itself.  The Herpetarium, not to be outdone, features Komodo dragons, tuatara, Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises, and several species of crocodilians, both in terrariums, outdoor yards, and split-level exhibits with underwater and above-water viewing.  The Primate House next door might be the least impressive of the animal houses in terms of its exhibit, but still has a fascinating collection of monkeys and lemurs.  Tucked between these buildings is a series of small pools, housing waterfowl, North American river otters, and alligator snapping turtles.  A final, and criminally underappreciated animal house, is the Monsato Insectarium, which includes a walk-through butterfly habitat, lots of cool interactive devices, and an amazing insect collection.

The removal of the zoo's Andean bears and sun bears to new exhibits of River's Edge freed up lots of space for one of the zoo's most cherished projects - it's massive new polar bear habitat, more than twice the size of the original.  The exhibit features above and underwater viewing, with land areas themed as tundra and coastline.  More cold-hardy animals can be seen in Penguin and Puffin Coast, where visitors walk through darkened hallways and watch (and smell) several species penguins and puffins splash around them, sometimes sloshing cold water over their glass barriers and onto the visitors.  The great apes - chimps, gorillas, and orangutans - have indoor and outdoor exhibits in the nearby Fragile Forest/Jungle of the Apes complex.  A state-of-the-art new sea lion arena is nearby, as is a picturesque flamingo lake.

At such a busy zoo with so much going on, you could be forgiven for skipping over the children's zoo, thinking that there's too much to see to stop for bunnies and goats.  You would be mistaken.  The Emerson Children Zoo does have that, of course.  It also has interactive learning devices and animal habitats, play areas, and presentation stages.  And if that doesn't excite you, then you should still come anyway, because some of the coolest animals in the zoo are also found in here, including Matschie's tree kangaroos and, as of very recently, Tasmanian devils!  (I just overshot the devils, same as with Toledo... just a little too early).

So that's the zoo in a nut shell, and that's just describing the animal collection!  Describing St. Louis Zoo's extraordinary involvement in conservation efforts, both in Missouri and around the globe, will require a whole new post... so that solves the problem of what to write about tomorrow.

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