Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Review of America's Zoos

So this isn't a review of ALL American Zoos, but 6 seems like an opportunity for comparison.

I have been working on a new book that requires me to visit zoos and take photographs of animals. Not all animals, but some specific animals that are not always easy to find. I poured through the websites of our major national zoos, asked around, and then started my road trip. I discovered that not all zoos are created equal. I will give each zoo a final rating from 1-5. Here are my findings.

THE BRONZ ZOO also now known as THE WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY. This new name encompasses 5 zoological parks in the greater New York City area: The Bronz Zoo, The New York Aquarium, The Brooklyn Zoo, Central Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo.

The Bronz Zoo was my first stop for many reasons. It is the closest to my home, it is one of the world's greatest and largest urban zoos and it so happens that my relative, Bill Conway, was the director of this zoo for many years before retiring. The Bronz Zoo is a big zoo to walk through and with small children, it would probably be best to take advantage of some the transportation options on the zoo campus or make sure you have a reliable stroller. The grounds are fairly clean and you forget you are in a city as soon as you walk through the gates. Almost all the animals live in their own expansive habitates. Sometimes this makes it hard to see the animals, but if we are thinking about the happiness of the animals there is no doubt they are getting the best opportunity to be content in a zoo. Some of the highlights of this zoo are The Bird House, The World of Darkness, The World of Reptiles and the Butterfly House. These are my favorites and I would go so far as to say memorable experiences. I am also a very big fan of the old buildings that define the historic aspects of the zoo. I know from Bill Conway that he wanted those buidlings to be taken down because they were antiquated and inappropriate housing for animals, but a number have them have been preserved as administration offices and the like. This is a great way to retain the history of the park and the beautiful carvings displayed on these buildings. I think they add something to the zoo- sorry Bill.

The BEST time to visit the zoo is obviously not the middle of summer. I was there in April and was pretty much the only person around except for the numerous volunteer docents who were eager to help me find what I was looking for. This made for an extremely pleasant experience.

My only real pet peeve is that the price for entering the zoo is high. This makes it a bit exclusive - especially since there are many add-ons after you enter. But they do have a Wednesday pay what you wish opportunity. So I give the zoo some extra credit for that.

The Bronx Zoo earns a 4.8. It is a wonderful zoo and worth a visit.

SOUTHWICK ZOO. You have never heard of this zoo you say?? Don't feel out of the loop. It is not on most radars, but that is what makes it so charming. The Southwick Zoo is in Mendon, MA which is a bit south and west of Boston. It isn't even near any major roads and so requires meandering down beautiful New England tree lined roads dotted with ancient stone walls and colonial homes. The last thing you expect to find out there is a zoo.

The Southwick Zoo is a private zoo. It is very small and very walkable, even with young children. They also have a lot of small animals - kid size. Birds, monkeys, porcupines, turtles etc. But surprisingly they also have a number of large animals living in natural habitates looking quite happy. They aren't Bronz Zoo style enclosures - but really quite satisfactory. Their new giraffe enclosure is lovely and unlike many larger zoos, you can actually get close to the animals and there are no people to jostle for a view.

An unusual feature of the zoo is the Deer Park. You walk through a double gate into a lovely woods. As you walk through the woods, deer start appearing out of no where and suddenly you are surrounded by deer. They are looking for treats - which you can purchase at the gate. But without food, they follow you around at a comfortable distance and make for an interesting experience.

Before I left, I treated myself to a ride on the chairlift. This very slow and quiet feature takes you in a loop high above the zoo. It is a quick 10 minute ride, but very enjoyable.

Again, this is not a cheap zoo. The cost is $20.00 for adults and 15.00 for kids. There are $2.00 off coupons available, but for some this is still prohibitively expensive. The park is nothing fancy, but clean and friendly. An excellent find for families with small children.

My rating for the Southwick Zoo is a 4.0.

MARYLAND ZOO. My daughter is going to school in Baltimore, so I have had a lot of opportunities to be in that fair city recently. I took advantage of my time there by visiting the Maryland Zoo and the National Aquarium - both in Baltimore. But I will start with the Maryland Zoo.

I really, really like this zoo. It is a beautiful zoo and if you are ever in Baltimore - go there. When you go through the gates, the first thing you see is a prairie dog exhibit to wet your whistle and there is nothing cuter than Prarie Dogs. To get into the main part of the zoo though requires a long and lovely walk through the woods. It gives you a chance to slow down and get in touch with nature To keep people entertained, interns dot the road holding various interesting animals. I love this feature of the zoo.

Once in the zoo, there are many well designed exhibits. It is not as big as the Bronz Zoo, so feels more excessible. Everything is just a bit closer together. the exhibits are not as luxurious as the Bronz Zoo either, but the animals seem happy and the park is well maintained. The highlight of this zoo for me is the Maryland Wilderness — a walking path featuring native animals and plants. This is such an important feature and so well done. Zoos should be showing off what is wonderful about the area they live in and the importance of protecting that native landscape. Helping people to appreciate their own backyards will help people to perhaps make an effort to preserve and protect at home. This was just as popular with the visitors as the big animals. Koodos to the Maryland Zoo.

Once again this zoo is not cheap, but a little cheaper than other big zoos. Adults are $16.50 and children $11.50. I am a broken record on this point, but I think all zoos should offer some kind of opportunity for the less privileged to visit.

I can't give the Maryland Zoo full marks but a clear 4.5

(I will get to the Aquariums at the end since they are a different kind of zoo.)

Next on my list was the PHILADELPHIA ZOO. I did my undergraduate work in Philadelphia and vaguely remember visiting this zoo many years ago. The Philadelphia zoo is in an odd part of town. With cars whizzing by at a very busy intersection, it seems impossible to get there. Finding the parking lot and then trying to get into the parking lot is a major accomplishment. Then you have to walk down the busy, rather dirty street to get to the zoo entrance. Of course I made the mistake of visiting the zoo in late June when the daytime high was 103 degrees. That certainly didn't help my impression. The Philadelphia Zoo is an old zoo and it looks old. There was a lot of construction going on which clearly indicated that change is on the way, but the general feel of the place is claustrophobic and a bit sad. There are a few very nice exhibits. I would say the monkeys get the prize with a very engaging 2 story space. Most of the animals though seem to still be in fairly small, confined spaces though they were clean and the animals seemed healthy. So I hope for better days at the Philadelphia zoo and I hope to never go back again in the summer!

AGAIN, there is a hefty price tag to get into this zoo. $18.00 for adults and @15.00 for kids.

If we are comparing zoos - which is what I am doing here, I would have to give the Philadelphia Zoo a 2.5.

PITTSBURGH ZOO. After a few weeks of rest, I happen to be on a family road trip west and stopped in Pittsburgh, PA to visit relatives. There is a zoo in Pittsburgh and though it was not on my original list, I had to stop in. It was still summer and equal to Philadelphia with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. The Pittsburgh Zoo is everything I dislike about zoos. Animals living in inadequate, dirty, depressing spaces is no fun for anyone. And to pay money to watch a lot of unhappy animals is even worse. This is a zoo with issues. There is a tank of Sand Tiger Sharks that would break your heart. There is no attempt to provide them with any kind of environmental camouflage. It is a big, slimy, dirty tank - thats it.

I am of the philosophy that if you can't take good care of animals then change the venue to something you can afford. Perhaps a few goats, turtles, guinea pigs and a lovable lama. Leave the big animals to zoos who can afford to care for them properly. I would not recommend a trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo unless you might have the bucks to donate for a major renovation. It could use a wealthy friend.

The Pittsburgh Zoo was my all time low. I would give it a 1.

The SAINT LOUIS ZOO. Our family road trip took us to St. Louis which is my home town and in the summer it is hotter than hot. Don't ask why we needed to go west in July but we survived. Despite the heat, I was very excited to have an opportunity to visit the St. Louis Zoo. I saved the best for last. This is an incredible zoo. It is beautifully designed, flowers and planting abound at every turn, it is clean, it is innovative and the list goes on. The enclosures don't match the luxurious spaces provided by the Bronz Zoo, but the St. Louis Zoo makes up for that with attention to detail. And here is the best part - ready - IT IS FREE. That's right. It is free to the public every day of the week. You can even go in early and get your morning power walk in before heading to work. I went back again and again because I could and so can you.

I spoke with one of the volunteer photographers one sweaty morning and he said the zoo exists on volunteers. They have an extraordinary army of volunteers that make the FREE possible. That warms my heart.

If you are ever in the vacinity of St. Louis, swing by the zoo - and the arch and the Botanical Garden. It is all pretty awesome.

The St. Louis Zoo gets a 5+ and a gold star for accessibility.

So there is my personal zoo assessment. I may still get to a few more zoos before my book is complete, but perhaps this list will be helpful to all you animal lovers out there.

Oh - I almost forgot the aquariums. Well I went to both the New England Aquarium in Boston and The National Aquarium in Baltimore. Aquariums are the most popular kind of attraction I have ever seen. There is never a quiet moment in aquariums.

First, I would like to give a gold star to one Aquarist at the National Aquarium - Morgan Denney. He is the best. Before I go visiting any of these establishments, I always call or email to find out if there is someone I could perhaps talk to about the animals I wish to photograph. I am looking for facts as well as photo opportunities. Rarely does anyone return my inquiry. But not Morgan Denney. He gave me a grand tour, gave me special access to the Octopus (which I was looking for) and was all around a great guy. I can't thank him enough. I know that might seem to prejudice my opinion, but I have been in both aquariums numerous times and though both are top notch, I would have to give the National Aquarium a higher rating. In fact I would give it a 5+. My rating is based pretty much on flow. Both aquariums house an extraordinary variety of sea life and it is all well presented. Both provide a large tank experience, but the flow of the exhibits at the National Aquarium filter people out into various parts of the space avoiding the constant congestion the plagues the New England Aquarium. The New England Aquarium does earn a 5.

As for price tag - don't ask. Both Aquariums are VERY expensive. You have to save up for this ride.