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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zoo Review: Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

They say that everything is bigger in Texas... and they very well may be right.  But when I think of the word "big" in association with zoos, my mind doesn't go to Texas.  It goes to Nebraska.  More specifically, it focuses on Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, one of the most extraordinary zoos in the country.  It seems like every exhibit there has some sort of "biggest" label (or "formerly biggest", in at least one case) - the world's biggest geodesic dome, the world's biggest nocturnal exhibit, the world's biggest cat complex.  Omaha is an amazing zoo, and the day that I spent there was barely enough to scratch its surface.

Any discussion of Henry Doorly must begin with what was the zoo's flagship exhibit - the Lied Jungle.  Located just inside the entrance, this award-winning 1.5 acre compound was, for many years, the world's largest indoor rainforest.  Exhibits are divided into three galleries - South America, Asia, and Africa - and are viewed from a canopy walkway or meandering trails on the jungle floor.  Spaced throughout the exhibit are habitats for pygmy hippopotamus, Baird's and Malayan tapirs, Asian small-clawed otters, and Philippine crocodiles, while small side displays feature reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.  The building also houses an extraordinary primate collection - howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, gibbons, and the only bearded sakis on display in the United States.  Lots of mixed-species interactions, including a monkey riding a tapir - my camera only took a few blurry shots, but it was hilarious watching the two species interact so casually, so familiarly.   There are also lots of free-flying birds... and bats.  For me, the most memorable experience in the building was having bats flying all around me.  Passing behind a towering waterfall, I watched Egyptian fruit bats feed on hanging slices of fruit.  Later, while walking through a tunnel (featuring underwater viewing windows on the tapirs, hippos, and crocs), a bat almost buzzed me as it zipped by.  Lied Jungle has to be seen to be believed, with its abundant, lush plants and supports shaped like massive trees; an adjacent restaurant offers spectacular views of the Jungle for diners.  I'd been hearing about it for two decades.  It did not disappoint.

If Lied Jungle was the crown jewel of the zoo, there is a new contender to the throne.  Also by the main entrance is the Desert Dome, the world's largest geodesic dome that tours the deserts of Africa, Australia, and North America.  There are fewer large animals than in the Lied Jungle, but the views are much more intimate, whether you are watching rock wallabies bound along a cliff face, klipspringer, meerkat, and rock hyrax observe you from amidst the rocks, or being curiously sniffed at by a pack of coatis.  The three deserts are separated by galleries of reptiles (this is one of the most impressive collections of venomous snakes I've ever seen, especially with regards to rattlesnakes), and free-flying birds flitting over the artificial dunes make for a beautiful sight.

But wait... there's more...

Lurking beneath the Desert Dome is another world class exhibit - the Kingdoms of the Night.  In darkened hallways, aardvarks, porcupines, fossa, night monkeys, and even more bats can be encountered, as well as Japanese giant salamanders.  The salamanders herald the entrance to the Wet Cave, a boardwalk leading over a dark swamp patrolled by beavers, bullfrogs, and, of course, alligators.  As a rule I tend to be skeptical of nocturnal exhibits, as I feel that you rarely actually see anything more than a dark shape shuffling against a dark background.  This one shut me up.

Completing the zoo's trifecta of buildings around the entrance complex is the Scott Kingdom of the Seven Seas Aquarium.  It's a typical zoo aquarium, meaning it hits the required notes - a shark exhibit, an Amazon tank, sea turtle, jellyfish, and, of course, penguins and puffins.  Of special interest to the zoo connoisseur are the weedy and leafy sea dragons and the Japanese spider crabs.  Nearby is an Insectarium, including a butterfly walk-through habitat and a jungle exhibit with giant arthropods from around the world.  The zoo is very involved in the conservation of the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, though none are on display.

So extraordinary are many of Omaha's exhibits that displays that would be world-renown at other facilities, I'm just getting to describing now.  Consider the great ape exhibits - the Hubbard Gorilla and Orangutan Forests.  The apes are the stars, of course - the gorillas have a grassy rolling lawn while the orangutans share a towering outdoor climbing structure with siamangs - with indoor viewing also available for both species.  Surrounding the apes are habitats for other Asian and African species, such as ground hornbills, red river hogs, and Francois langurs.

Even more primates are seen in the indoor/outdoor Expedition Madagascar. Nearly a dozen species of lemurs call Omaha home, from the ubiquitous ring-tailed lemur to the rarely exhibited aye-aye.  The building goes beyond lemurs, however, also housing rarely seen small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians from the island continent, such as radiated tortoises, jumping rats, and Madagascar teal.  During the warmer months, many of the lemurs can be viewed in an outdoor enclosure.  Also outdoors is a habitat for their arch predator, the fossa.  Madagascar is rarely highlighted as a geographic area by zoos, but for Omaha, it is more than appropriate - the zoo is extremely involved in Malagasy field conservation, and has even been responsible for the discovery of new lemur species.

And if all that weren't enough, there's a special events hall which doubles as a small animal house, a sea lion pool, and, oh yeah, a FOUR ACRE aviary, the third largest in the world, with flamingos, cranes, swans, and storks.  There is also an IMAX theater, a train, an Alaska-themed splash park, and a skytram, just in case you actually manage to get tired of looking at all of the amazing animals the zoo has to offer.

The zoo's excellence on-exhibit is matched by it's excellence off-exhibit.  The conservation efforts mentioned already, from beetles to lemurs, are the tip of the iceberg.  The zoo maintains an off-exhibit breeding complex for critically endangered amphibians. A  research department works to reduce human-wildlife conflict around the globe.  The zoo's involvement with assisted reproduction for exotic felines is legendary.  The list goes on.

So that's the good.  The bad?  A much shorter list.

The zoo is famed for its work with big cats, especially tiger artificial insemination.  Which really makes me wish I could say that the Cat Complex wasn't awful.  But it is... awful, I mean.  Tiger, puma, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard (and Komodo dragon, for some reason)... too many cats in too little space.  Is it really necessary to have as many subspecies of tiger as possible on display for viewing?  The bear grottos down the hill - sun, Andean, American black, and polar bears, the later with underwater viewing - aren't that much better.  To be fair, the zoo certainly acknowledges the limitations of its current exhibits, and signage in the Cat Complex calls attention to the new, improved habitats which are planned.

The first of these habitats is on the way with the new African Grasslands.  The lions will leave the crowded confines of the Cat Complex to join cheetahs, African wild dogs, white rhino, giraffe, and more in a brand new habitat.  Headlining the project are six of the famous (or infamous) African elephants shipped over from Swaziland earlier this year.  If Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo does half as good of a job with Africa as it did with all of its other exhibits, it's going to be incredible.

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