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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Zoo Review: Zoo Miami

In the 1970s, the staff of Miami's Crandon Park Zoo, located on Key Biscayne, got a chance to do something that literally every other zoo in the United States would kill for - a chance to start over.  A brand new zoo was built on the Florida mainland, opening as the Miami Metro Zoo in 1980 and recently renamed Zoo Miami.  The old zoo was deemed too small and too exposed to the deadly hurricanes of south Florida.  The new facility, spread over 750 acres, is a gorgeous facility and the only subtropical zoo in the continental United States.

The first exhibit that visitors see upon approaching Zoo Miami is the flock of American flamingos, nosily squabbling around the edge of the their pool.  Unlike at any other zoo in the country, the flamingos aren't exotics - south Florida boasts of native, wild flamingos.  More Floridian natives are seen in the new Florida: Mission Everglades trail, located nearby.  Meandering down the sometimes confusing trails, visitors are exposed to a host of native species, many of which they could probably spend months in the Everglades without seeing, such as American black bear and Florida panther.  There are raccoons, bobcats, bald eagles, a host of non-releasable waterbirds - pelicans, ibises, herons - and, of course, alligators aplenty.  Animals are seen from elevated bridges, underwater viewing windows, or eye-level Plexiglas windows, depending on the display.  The exhibit is a fun chance for kids to explore habitats in different ways - maybe riding an mini airboat through the exhibit, or taking a slide through the otter pool, or even crawling through an underwater tunnel that passes through the habitat of a massive American crocodile.

In most zoos, South America is represented by a rainforest building.  In the tropical weather of Miami, the wildlife of the green continent is too expansive to be held in a single building.  Amazon and Beyond, centered around a South American mercado plaza, is a three-lobed trail that takes visitors from the cloud forests of the Andes to the bottom of the Amazon River.  Along the way, they will encounter giant otters, giant anteaters, jaguars, howler monkeys, and Orinoco crocodiles, among other species.  There is a walkthrough aviary, a tank of massive Amazonian fishes, a stunningly beautiful waterfowl lagoon, and one of the most impressive Neotropical reptile collections I've ever seen - Miami is America's gateway to Latin America, and many smuggled reptiles are confiscated coming into the city.  The result - a host of rarely seen species, including some I'd never even heard of before and exhibited nowhere else.  Many of the exhibits occupy both sides of the trail, with animals either passing overhead (as with the harpy eagles and jaguars, to say nothing of the very innovative bat exhibit) or under the feet of visitors, such as the giant otters.  Habitats are lush and well-planted, creating the most realistic rainforest vibe I've ever encountered in a zoo (outside of Belize).

Tucked off into a corner of the zoo is a small Australian area, home to the zoo's koalas.  The ever popular marsupials - along with tree kangaroos - are tucked into two small habitats (the smallest koala exhibits that I've ever seen, but then again, koalas don't actually do anything, so why waste the space?).  Far more exciting are the animated New Guinea singing dogs.  In a tree nearby, a crocodile monitors basks at eye level with visitors filing by, but can be difficult to spot among the leafy branches.  Kangaroos and emus occupy a dusty yard across the path.

The oldest parts of the zoo are the Africa and Asia loops - of course, here "oldest" means back in 1980, so still very much keeping with modern zoo design.  The huge selection of African ungulates are kept in moated enclosures and includes okapi, gerenuk, addra gazelle, and an impressive breeding herd of giant eland, the world's largest antelope.  Visitors will also find zoo favorites such as lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, giraffes (with a feeding deck), Grevy's zebras, spotted hyenas, and the largest collection of pachyderms I'd ever seen - African and Asian elephants, Indian and black rhinoceroses, pygmy hippos, and Malayan tapirs.  If there is a show-stealer for these loops, however, it would have to be the tigers.  I think I actually gasped when I first saw the display - a recreation of Angkor Wat, with a pair of Sumatran tigers lounging in the grassy yard that sprawled out before it.  I assume that the temple ruins serve as the night house for the cats.  When one of the tigers got up, stretched, and walked right in front of the ruins, I think I heard the cameras of one hundred visitors click at once.

There is only one exhibit at Miami which surpasses the tiger exhibit.  I'm speaking of the zoo's most famous exhibit - Wings of Asia.  To call Wings of Asia  an aviary is sort of like calling the Lourve an art gallery.  Over an acre in size, it is a massive, multi-level habitat where birds as large as man-sized Sarus cranes can be lost from view along the curving waterways and dense vegetation.  Wandering down the trail, you'll probably first notice the big birds - painted storks, green peafowl, or maybe the great Indian hornbills located in a side aviary - and be so intent on them that you'll probably be shocked when you finally notice the little banded rails skittering around your feet.  Take a path up the hill, or climb the stairs of a ruined temple to better observe the smaller flying birds - songbirds and pigeons - or to better appreciate the size of the aviary from an elevated vantage point.  Be sure to check out the diverse waterfowl collection, not only from across the creek but through underwater viewing windows, where you may also spot Fly river turtles or painted terrapins.  Outside of the aviary, the link between the past and present of birds is brought home with dinosaur sculptures.  Wings of Asia was decimated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but has reopened with all of its former glory... and then some.

Hidden around the zoo are other exhibits - lemurs, Komodo dragons, spider monkeys - and I know this brief review hardly does justice to the sprawling splendor of Zoo Miami.  The zoo is so large that many visitors opt to take the monorail from point to point across the facility - it's an option I rejected out of fear of missing anything, no matter how minute.  It turns out, I still missed things - I simply did not leave myself enough time to explore the zoo, and pretty much had to be shoved out of the gate at closing by the staff.  This, I suppose, means I'll just have to go back for another round.

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