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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Zoo Review: Zoo New England - Franklin Park Zoo

The geography of zoos has always puzzled me.  Cities that I never thought of us major metropolises - Cincinnati, Toledo, Omaha, Kansas City - wind up with some magnificent zoos, while some of the biggest, oldest cities in the country... sometimes don't.

Until fairly recently, Boston was definitely a "don't."  Opened in 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo, located in the city's Emerald Necklace of parks, had been in decline for many years - by the 1980's, magazine articles referred to it as one of America's worst zoos.  That all began to change shortly after - an ambitious program of new exhibit construction, changing collection plans, and new management turned the city zoo around completely.  Still a relatively small zoo compared to those found in other major eastern cities, the Franklin Park Zoo of today is a far superior facility to what it was just a few short years ago.

The exhibit which truly heralded the rebirth of the Franklin Park Zoo is its flagship Tropical Forest building.  When it opened in 1989 it was limited solely to African species; it now contains a fairly even mixture of African and South American animals.  Gorillas are the stars here, occupying a large, rocky habitat (one Boston gorilla, a young male named Little Joe, brought Franklin Park some unwanted fame due to a series of escapes he pulled off).  Also found in the building are dwarf crocodiles, giant anteaters, Baird's tapirs, capybara, DeBrazza's monkeys, and cotton-topped tamarins.  Pygmy hippos may be seen either across a moat or from an underwater viewing gallery, while fruit bats and pottos (lemur-like primates) are displayed in nocturnal habitats.  A small reptile gallery is dominated by massive green anacondas.  Flitting about the forest are different species of tropical birds, while larger birds - saddle-billed storks and griffon vultures - are confined to specific enclosures.  Outside, grassy habitats house cranes (including very rarely-exhibited Siberian cranes) and spotted hyenas (but not together).

More African animals can be seen across the zoo in a series of savanna yards.  Maasai giraffes and Grevy's zebra occupy one yard, while just up the path a second yard houses plains zebra, wildebeest, and ostrich in Serengeti Crossing.  A trail sneaking behind the second yard leads to Kalahari Kingdom, where lions may be observed from several vantage points - including through the windshield of a jeep that appears to have crashed through the exhibit's viewing windows.  Nearby, an extra enclosure was squeezed in to accommodate confiscated tigers that were in need of a home.  Scattered around the lions and the zebras are additional habitats for Kori bustard, bongo, red river hog, warthog, and crested porcupines.  Tucked among the animals is a lonely little stone tower.  This is Sargent's Folly, the last remnant of an estate which predated Franklin Park (the zoo and the park itself), dating back to 1840 - a fun little sighting for any history buffs in your party.

Across from Tropical Forest is the zoo's other major indoor exhibit, Bird World.  This Asian-styled pagoda is a relatively small bird house, consisting of a few habitat-themed galleries: swamp, rainforest, desert, and riverbank.  Among the birds seen inside are tawny frogmouths, boat-billed herons, and aracaris.  More birds are seen outside, either in a row of aviaries attached to the building, in the waterfowl pond, or in a small flamingo pool.  The coolest exhibit, however, is the Andean condor aviary - visitors walk through the center of the massive flight cage in an enclosed walkway, while the giant vultures swoop overhead (or, more accurately, sit and preen while periodically glaring at you... because that's what condors do).

More birds can be seen in the zoo's Australia area, not least of all in the budgie feeding aviary.  Far more exciting for a zoo buff (though probably no one else) are the kiwis, seen in a special nocturnal building.  Mammals can be found in Australia too, of course - a walk-through kangaroo exhibit allows for close-up encounters with the big marsupials.

The zoo's last major exhibit area is the Children Zoo, designed around the concepts of play and exploration.  Visitors young and old enter a number of habitats and meet different animals - red panda climbing through tree branches, cranes and waterfowl milling around a stream in a walk-through aviary, or prairie dogs bustling around their town (where kids can pop up in the middle of the exhibit in a Plexiglas dome).  Many of the displays are interactive and encourage the uses of the senses - one display allows children to climb a replication eagle nest, then use their lofty perch to go on a scavenger hunt for small "animals" hidden around the Children's Zoo.  Next to the Children Zoo is a small interactive barnyard.

Even in the last few years, between my most recent visit and the one prior to that, Franklin Park Zoo has grown and refined itself tremendously.  Some of the new exhibits are quite nice - the Giraffe Savannah, for instance, is one of my favorite displays of African ungulates - spacious, beautiful panoramic views.  There are some educational/interpretive aspects that I also loved.  The Children's Zoo was great, for instance.  And I loved the hidden safari clues that were scattered among the savanna exhibits - a fake impala carcass stashed up in a tree, for instance, showing where a leopard had supposedly stashed its kill, or an ostrich nest, complete with replica eggs that kids could sit on.

Some of the exhibits that were state of the art at the time of their opening, however, are now beginning to show their age.  Bird's World struck me as kind of... empty.  Walking through it, I found myself imaging how I would restock it to make more active multi-species aviaries.  Tropical Forest is the quintessential zoo rainforest building that I don't like.  It's basically a monkey house with lots of fake rocks.  Considering the species involved, I wonder if there is a way to replace some of the smaller habitats with larger, mixed-species ones - for example, forming one large habitat for giant anteater, capybara, and tapir, rather than three smaller ones.  Ideally, the building could be gutted and redone completely, but I can't begin to imagine how much that would cost...

Which isn't to say that I don't like Franklin Park Zoo.  I really do.  It's just that I see the potential for it to do so much.  The zoo has already come so far.  With a little more time and more resources, I'm sure it can accomplish some wonderful things for its visitors and its animals.

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