The Quito Zoo, located in Guayllabamba, features an impressive selection of Ecuador's native birds and mammals. It's collection of reptiles and amphibians is somewhat less spectacular. This is unfortunate, as Ecuador (which includes a section of the Amazon Rainforest) possesses some of the most incredible herpetofauna in the world. Fortunately, visitors to the country's capital have an opportunity to see some of the country's most beautiful and unique species in a very special facility - the Quito Vivarium.
Unlike the Zoo, the Vivarium is located within the city itself, a short cab ride away from many of the hotels and attractions. It is a small compound, consisting of a main exhibit building and associated lab space and holding facilities nearby. You won't find enormous exhibits here - no dusty yard of plodding Galapagos tortoises, nor pools of massive crocodilians. Instead, you will encounter a cross-section of the amphibians and reptiles of Ecuador, displayed in habitats that replicate their natural environments so well that they would look at home in the finest US reptile houses.
When my Ecuadorian colleague suggested we visit the Vivarium, I was dubious. I've seen too many cheesy reptile tourist attractions, both in the US and abroad, where animal welfare and education place far behind sensationalism and photo ops. I expected to see a few crocodiles, some tortoises, maybe a viper in a sensational snake show, and then a boa constrictor or iguana passed around for a photo op. Instead, I saw lots of animals in nice, well-designed enclosures complete with educational graphics. I sat in on an informative, interactive (but non-exploitative) educational presentation about snakes. I discussed (via my translator) the research that the facility does on the reptiles and amphibians of Ecuador. Most important of all, I got the sense that this was no tourist trap. It is a facility for the local people to come and get to know their natural heritage.
One of the rules of the Vivarium is that photographs are not allowed so as not to annoy the animals in their enclosures. I honored that rule there - the single animal photo that I am displaying here was taken with the permission of the staff during a conversation I had with a biologist there. It is an Andean marsupial frog, a species I had never encountered before. Actually, almost all of the animals I saw there represented species that were new to me. For example, many American zoos display the bushmaster, the world's largest viper species. The Vivarium has them... as well as a different species of bushmaster that I had never even heard of before. As much as I loved the Vivarium, I was sad upon leaving that I barely can remember or recall many of the animals I saw. It wasn't until I left that I realized how much I rely on my photographs to help me remember and process my zoo and aquarium visits.
If you find yourself exploring Ecuador, the odds are you'll fly into Quito. If you do, make a point of visiting this extraordinary little facility. It will give you a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of Ecuador's reptiles and amphibians. It will also give you the satisfaction of supporting a place that works to make a better future for these animals, both in the wild and in the hearts of the Ecuadorean people.