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Monday, July 25, 2016

Zoo Review: Potawatomi Zoo

Like many American zoos, the Potawatomi Zoo (it's actually pretty easy to pronounce if you just break it up and go slowly) had very humble beginnings - originally, it was simply a duck pond.  A duck pond grew with the addition of a herd of deer, then a herd of bison.  Today it is one of the finest medium-sized zoos in the Midwest, boasting an impressive collection of cats, primates, and ungulates.  A recently unveiled master plan promises to make even more positive changes.

At only 23 acres, the zoo houses a wide variety of species, all without managing to feel cramped.  There didn't strike me as being an especially clear layout to the zoo, except for a rough grouping by continent.  No area was especially enormous or in depth, but each covered a basic selection of the continent's most iconic species... where appropriate for a medium-sized zoo.  Africa, for instance, consisted of grassy yards for zebra and Watusi cattle (mixed with crowned cranes).  A small troop of chimpanzees is found nearby, visible in either an outdoor yard or through the windows of their indoor holding building.  More primates, including the colobus monkeys which form the zoo's logo.  Lions, one of the zoo's many big cats on display, occupy what is, to be charitable, a pretty mediocre exhibit nearby.  African wild dogs have a much more naturalistic enclosure over by the hoofstock.

Asia is a much smaller section, largely dominated by the cats - tigers, snow leopard, and a breeding group of critically endangered Amur leopards (a mother and her half-grown cubs were on display when I visited).  Red pandas occupy a very attractive exhibit, and white-naped cranes, muntjac, and Bactrian camels are also found here.  The animal that I was most interested in seeing, however, was the takin.  Potawatomi has had lots of success in maintaining, training, and breeding these rare Himalayan ungulates.  It's hard to say why I enjoyed their exhibit so much - it was just a simple, open yard on a slight hill - maybe its simplicity just made it seem more natural than an exhibit filled with gunite rockwork and mountains.

Australia largely consisted of a walkthrough habitat, home to emu, black swan, red-necked wallabies, and kangaroos.  Kookaburras and honeyeaters occupy side aviaries.  More birds - as well as the vast majority of the zoo's reptile and small mammal collection (Jamaican fruit bats, banded mongoose, golden lion tamarins, etc) are located in an education building - complete with classrooms.  Outside, spider monkeys spend the warmer months on islands in a small lake.

The final area is a catch-all of the Americas; it may have been my favorite.  I loved the giant anteater exhibit (viewing the anteaters from underneath the exposed roots of a giant fake tree).  Also impressive were what I took to be two of the newer exhibits, one for bobcat, one for North American river otter.  Grassy yards housed bison, peccary, and alpaca,  flamingos strolled around a lagoon, and prairie dogs gamboled about in front of a winter holding building for American and Chinese alligators.  A small petting barn rounds out the zoo.

After going through a bit of a decline in recent years (many of the keepers I spoke to on my visit indicated that many of the exhibits had been empty until recently), the Potawatomi Zoo is surging and expanded.  Last year it unveiled its master plan, which is visible on the zoo's website.  It calls for several new exhibits to be built - some new ones for existing species in the collection, some for new faces - giraffes, bears, and wolves, to name a few. 

I find this really reassuring.  While many of the newer exhibits were excellent, I definitely got the sense that some parts of the zoo seemed overcrowded and might have benefited from fewer species.  The adjacent leopard and snow leopard exhibits, for example, I felt could have been merged to form one larger exhibit for one species (though I must admit, I was impressed by the way the keepers used layers upon layers of shelving to increase the three-dimensional space available for the cats.  Likewise, I wasn't tremendously impressed with the chimp exhibit... until a keeper told me that it was much smaller, originally, and the zoo filled in the moat to give the apes much more land space.

At any rate, the zoo seemed to buzz - at every level - with energy and enthusiasm, and it's hard not to see that great things are in the works there.  I look forward to the realization of the zoo's master plan - one which continues its trend of great new exhibits while moving the occupants of its older exhibits into new, high quality homes.

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