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Monday, September 25, 2017

Zoo Review: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Some zoos are famous for a particular species that they display, such as the National Zoo with its giant pandas, or the San Diego Zoo with its koalas.  Others are famous for an exhibit, such as Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo with its Lied Jungle.  Of all the American zoos, there is only one that I can think of which owes its fame to a person.  The facility is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and that person is Jack Hanna, its director emeritus.

When Hanna moved to the Columbus Zoo in 1978, legend has it that many of the local people didn't even know there was a zoo in Columbus (and, to be fair, there isn't - the zoo is in the nearby town of Powell, Ohio).  With a lot of hard work and a whole lot of media coverage, "Jungle Jack" began to shape one of America's forgotten zoos into a premiere facility with some of the best exhibits and one of the finest collections in the country.

If Columbus Zoo has a celebrity besides Hanna, it would have been Colo, the world's first captive-born gorilla, who passed away this January.  Colo's legacy lives on in the zoo's Expedition Congo trail, where the many members of the zoo's large troop (containing some of her descendants) may either be observed outdoors beneath a massive dome-like structure or inside in a multi-room viewing building.  More primates found along the trail include mandrills, bonobos, and colobus monkeys.  Grassy yards display okapi, duiker, and red river hogs, while leopards prowl a mesh-enclosed grassy yard with several climbing structures.  A walk-through aviary features many species of African birds, including ibises, crowned cranes, and turacos.  To my immense surprise, however, the exhibit which made the biggest impact on me was... the African gray parrot, one of the most common, sought-after pet parrots on the market.  I'd seen them hundreds of times before, often surrendered pets being used as animal ambassadors, but never like this.  A flock of ten or so flitted around a well-furnished enclosure the size of a studio apartment, flying together or bickering playfully as they scrambled across the branches.  Watching the birds behave as they would in the wild, I realized how inadequate most private households are for caring for these birds, with a single parrot cooped up in a small cage for most of the day until the owners come home.  Looking back on it, I suspect that was the idea behind the exhibit.

More African animals can be seen in the sprawling new Heart of Africa, where lions lounge on the wings of a small airplane that seems to have taxied halfway into their exhibit.  Visitors who are a lot smaller and more nimble than me can creep into the cockpit and watch the lions sprawl across the windshield, or meander off to watch the savannah panorama behind them.  In a sweeping grassy vista that lies past the lions, a host of African ungulates and tall savannah birds pick their way across a several acre grassland.  Nearby, giraffes occupy a separate exhibit (or is it?  I had a hard time telling...), where they can be fed from a viewing dock.  A beautiful, lush yard in the foreground is a rotating exhibit, where cheetahs, spotted hyenas, warthogs, or other African mammals may be seen, depending on who is out when.  Across the path, a troop of vervet monkeys appears to be raiding an unoccupied campsite (which, based on past experiences in East Africa, I can verify that they will readily do at the earliest opportunity).

Many zoos have remarkable African exhibits, but it's rare to find one that does as good of a job with our own continent as Columbus Zoo does.  North America is perhaps best known for Nora, the neglected polar bear cub who was raised by the keepers of the zoo until she was sent out to the Oregon Zoo upon being successfully reared.  While she is gone, there are still cubs present in the beautiful polar bear habitat, easily the best I've seen so far.  Like many polar bear exhibits, it features a deep pool with magnificent opportunities for underwater viewing.  Unlike many others, it also features a spacious green meadow pocked with boulders and logs that lets the polar bears act like... well, bears.  More bears are found down the trail - grizzlies and American blacks.  A nearby log cabin provides a sneak-peek into a habitat of rarely-exhibited wolverines.  Along the trail visitors may also encounter gray wolves (the zoo is famed for its success in breeding Mexican gray wolves), bald eagles, sandhill cranes, American beavers, North American rivers otters, and an impressive collection of North American ungulates.  Caribou inhabit a rather conventional corral, while moose immerse themselves in a deep pond and bison and pronghorn trot across a grassy yard.  The later habitat can also be seen via a train which encircles the exhibit.  For me, the surprising treat of this area was the songbird aviary, with a host of species - some commonly seen, like robins, some less-often, like orioles - flitting around.  It's strange that these birds - if they hailed from South America or Africa - would probably be commonplace jewels in our collections.  Since they are natives, we seldom give them notice.

Not to be outdone, Asia Quest starts of with... African black rhinos.  Okay, but after that, it features Asian elephants, before feeding into a winding trail that ducks in an out of buildings.  Red pandas, Asian cranes, tufted deer, and Pallas cats occupy outdoor exhibits, while reptiles and flying foxes can be seen indoors.  Sun and sloth bears are observed from inside a building devoted to educating visitors about wildlife trafficking, before guests enter yet another walk-through aviary.  Outside, markhor trot across a rocky cliff face, before visitors encounter the stars of the trail - the gorgeous Amur tigers.   As with the wildlife trafficking building, the zoo doesn't shy away from potentially grim conservation messaging, using shattered statues and blanked-out signs to remind visitors that three subspecies of tiger are already extinct... and that the other five might not be too far behind.   

The rest of the Asian collection is seen in Australia and the Islands, where visitors may observe the wildlife of Southeast Asia and Indonesia either by boat or by trail.  Komodo dragons, orangutans, gibbons, and small-clawed otters are seen in the Asian portion, before Australia takes over.  The Down Under section includes a kangaroo walk-through, a lorikeet feeding aviary, and much-beloved koalas.  At the end of the trail is the Roadhouse, a nocturnal gallery that highlights the creatures of the Indonesia and Australian night.  Wombats, kiwis, tree kangaroos, binturongs, and tawny frogmouths are among the residents of the darkened hallways, which then opens up into a beautiful, day-lit aviary.  Parrots, waterfowl, ibises, and lapwings fly overhead or stroll down the path, while kookaburras inhabit a side-enclosure.

The aquarium portion of the facility's name is represented in the Shores area, a three-building complex that houses the zoo's fish and reptile collections.  The conventional aquarium, Discovery Reef, features sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles among an 88,000 gallon saltwater coral reef.  The Reptile House has an impressive collection of freshwater turtles and terrapins from around the world, as well as venomous snakes, dart frogs, and pythons; American alligators lurk in a habitat directly outside.  The highlight for most visitors is Manatee Coast; along with Cincinnati Zoo, Columbus is one of the only US facilities outside of Florida to display these gentle giants.  Manatees present in this exhibit are rescued animals that were injured by accidents in Florida; when they cruise past the acrylic walls of their tank, it's easy to see the terrible scars that were inflicted upon them by careless boaters.  The manatees share their pool with a hawksbill sea turtle and a host of beautiful fish, while pelicans and ducks paddle overhead.  More birds are seen outdoors in habitats for American flamingos and Humboldt penguins.  A series of lovely sculptures and fountains nearby make for great photo ops.

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