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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Zoo Review: Detroit Zoo

Even since it's opening in 1928, the Detroit Zoo has been a trendsetter and an innovator.  It was the first zoo in America that was designed, planned, and built in accordance with Carl Hagenbeck's barless zoo habitats.  (The process was still in its rough stages at the time - during the zoo's opening ceremonies, a polar bear briefly escaped its enclosure and confronted Detroit's amused mayor).  More recently, Detroit made history again, in a more controversial manner, when it became the first US zoo to announce that it would no longer house elephants based on ethical grounds.  This decision has led to increased pressure from animal right's groups on other zoos that house elephants, which in turn has led some zookeepers to feel a certain hostility towards Detroit and its Director, Ron Kagan.


Upon entering the zoo, the first exhibit that most visitors will encounter is the Polk Penguin Conservation Center.  Upon looking at it from the outside, I was decidedly unimpressed - it was a giant white monstrosity that I suppose was built to resemble icebergs.  The inside was considerably better - a massive habitat for several species of Antarctic penguins, complete with deep pools for swimming, accessible to visitors via towering windows and underwater tunnels.  The exhibit, the largest penguin facility in the country.  The exhibit tells the story of Ernest Shackleton and his exploration of the Antarctic, including a view of Antarctic marine life (on computer screens) through the portholes of a ship.


Among zoo professionals, one of the most famous exhibits at Detroit is the National Amphibians Conservation Center, located on the edge of a Michigan lagoon, patrolled by trumpeter swans.  Inside, a series of beautiful displays feature some of the most spectacular amphibian species.  Among them are Panamanian golden frogs, Puerto Rican crested toads, golden mantellas, and mountain chicken frogs, along with African lungfish.  The stars of the building are also building's largest occupants - Japanese giant salamanders, which inhabit a large, stream-like habitat.  While I was visiting, an even larger habitat for these giant amphibians was under construction.



In many zoos, reptiles and amphibians share a building.  In Detroit, reptiles occupy a separate devoted facility, the Holden Reptile Conservation Center, on the opposite side of the lagoon.  An impressive collection is found among the darkened corridors, including king cobras, matamatas, and water monitors.  In the largest enclosure, Siamese crocodiles bask by the shores of their pool.


Compared to the extensive reptile and amphibian collections, the bird collection at Detroit is rather sparse.  Apart from the penguins, most of the birds are found in a walk-through aviary, which shares a building with a butterfly gallery and art gallery.

Penguins and amphibians aside, the star attraction of the Detroit Zoo is the Arctic Ring of Life, a stellar habitat for polar bears.  Bears occupy two spacious yards - one a traditional rocky grotto, the other a sprawling grassy tundra.  The bears can be seen through underwater tunnels also, swimming above the heads of zoo visitors.  Harbor and grey seals seem to share the waterways with the bears, making one of the most unique predator-prey exhibits I've ever seen.

More American animals are seen in a series of paddocks.  Bison, guanaco, grey wolves,bald eagles, and prairie dogs are some of the more common zoo animals found here.  There are also some unique species found here.  Giant anteaters plod through a yard filled with tall grasses.  Bush dogs splash in and out of their pool.  In my favorite enclosure, wolverines romp through a wooded habitat, one larger than I've seen many zoos give their bears.  Nearby, grizzly bears clambour over the artificial rockwork of their habitat, one of the zoo's original enclosures.  Elsewhere in the zoo are an exhibit of beaver, as well as the best North American river otter exhibit I've ever encountered.  The otters have a beautiful outdoor enclosure, while visitors view them from inside a log cabin, where they view the otters through underwater viewing windows.



When the elephants left for their "sanctuary", their enclosure became the habitat of white rhinoceroses.   Other African animals include giraffes, warthogs, lions, zebras, and antelope.  Gorillas and chimpanzees are found in enormous exhibits filled with rolling hills and tall climbing structures.  During the inclement Michigan winters, the apes have access to indoor enclosures, considerable less aesthetically pleasing than the outdoor habitats, but still large and highly enriched.  While the sight of the chimpanzees chasing each other across their enormous habitats is very appealing for visitors, the exhibit which most impressed me was the aardvark habitat.  It was easily the biggest exhibit I've seen for this species, lushly planted and handsomely arranged.  I remember looking at it and thinking, "There's no way that anyone ever sees an aardvark in here..." and just then, an aardvark emerged from one burrow and strolled placidly across the enclosure before disappearing into a second.


There is also a small Asian forest area, consisting of Amur tigers, red pandas, and a paddock of Asian deer and camels.

While I don't agree or approve of some other "progressive" elements of Detroit Zoo's policy, it was hard not to impressed.  There are many species that I saw here in the best enclosures I've ever seen for them - aardvark, wolverine, otter, and chimpanzee, among them. The zoo's commitment to conservation is exemplary - they have excellent programs with gorillas in Africa, dart frogs in Peru, and martens in Michigan, among other species.  They've been very active in animal rescues - many of the animals in the zoo have plaques describing how they were rescued, either as injured animals or from irresponsible/illegal pet owners.  They've also become increasingly involved in native species - just this month, the zoo announced their plans to open a new education center focused on native wildlife in Macomb County.



I could definitely see myself becoming a fan of Detroit Zoo - I just sometimes wish that their leadership didn't seem to occasionally toss other facilities under the bus, as it seems to do from time to time.


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