I don’t know about you but I am conflicted about zoos. I understand the ethical concerns about restricting animals to false environments but I also realize that zoos engage in important conservation efforts. Like most ethical dilemmas, there is right and wrong on both sides and people have strong opinions on the subject. So when my son, Michael, an animal lover since childhood, wanted to visit Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines before his return flight to Europe, I admit I was surprised and ambivalent. But with fond memories of our trip to this particular zoo when my kids were little, I agreed.
Blank Park Zoo
Blank Park Zoo is the only accredited zoo in the state of Iowa and it’s small with 1000 animals overall. It takes only a couple of hours to see it at a leisurely pace. The morning was beautiful and we arrived early because we’re Iowans; we get up early and get going. I commented that maybe it wouldn’t open until 10:00, checked my smart phone, and found that it opens at 9:00. Of course. Don’t you just love it?
Here’s a map from the website to get an overall idea of the grounds. I’ll cover just a few of the highlights although we did see it all.
Immediately inside the entrance, we stopped for a photo-op of Michael and the bald eagle. Accustomed to seeing bald eagles soar high above the river in my own neighborhood, I was somewhat disturbed to observe this magnificent bird caged in such a confined space.
Michael and Bald Eagle
Somehow Michael and I skipped right past the red pandas by the entrance but my husband, Jim, made a quick stop. We later regretted our haste when we circled back to see them and they were inside and we could only see their adorable little faces peering out at us. With fewer than 2500 remaining in the wild in China, they’re endangered. Consequently, they are part of a species survival plan which is a program to manage the breeding and conservation of endangered species to ensure the survival of a healthy population (Blank Park Zoo, 2014).
After a quick stop at the river otter exhibit, we headed to Australia Adventure where we enjoyed 15-20 wallabies on the loose. The wallaby mob (group) consists of boomers (males), flyers (females), and joeys (young). Australia is on my “must see” list of countries to visit so I particularly enjoyed this exhibit.
Wallabies on the loose
I didn’t know the kookaburra is called the bushmen’s watch because they typically emit their laughing call around dusk, according to the educational signage nearby. I also learned this bird, a carnivore that feeds on lizards, snakes, and small mammals, is as common in Australia as crows and starlings in Iowa. There were lots of other birds in this area including a parakeet aviary and black swans in a pond and at the back of the area you will find the depot to catch a ride on the little train that circles the zoo.
We, however, headed to the Aldabra tortoises. These large tortoises come from the Seychelle and Aldabra Islands in the Indian Ocean. They are currently threatened with extinction in the wild due to loss of habitat.
The oldest tortoise, Barnaby, age 75-85, has the distinction of being the longest tenured animal in the zoo. I remember this fellow from our visit many years ago and I can tell you either he or the female emits a VERY loud grunting noise while mating because we witnessed it and thought our young children would be traumatized but they don’t remember the experience at all. Thankfully.
When we were in South Africa earlier this year, they told us the big cats are called lions because they’re always lyin’ around. That’s how we observed this male and female until the female languidly rose and sauntered off while we watched. They are also threatened in their natural habitat in Africa.
Lion and Lioness
Our most disturbing observation at the zoo was while watching the behavior of the snow leopard. This cat paced back and forth repetitively along the fence row while we watched. Observe the worn path along the fence.
The snow leopard, from Asia, has been hunted nearly to extinction for its beautiful pelt, with only 4400-7500 remaining in the wild today.
The Siberian tiger is the largest of the cats and the most critically endangered. Interestingly, no two tigers have the same stripe pattern, kind of like human fingerprints.
There are currently only 400 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild and 560 in captivity. In the wild, their hunting territory ranges up to 1600 square miles which gives me great cause for concern about their mental health in captivity.
Like many people, I love to watch primates. I spent considerable time attempting to get photos of these monkeys but frankly, they refused to cooperate and studiously refrained from looking my way. I persevered and here’s the best that I got.
Called Japanese macaques, also known as the Snow monkey, from Japan, they are protected by the Japanese government but threatened, nevertheless, due to loss of habitat.
I was surprised and excited to find two black rhinos at Blank Park Zoo, knowing how endangered they are. We never saw a black rhino while we were in South Africa last February although we did see the white rhino. The black rhino is somewhat smaller and a browser, whereas its relative, the white rhino, is a grazer. What’s the difference? Browsers eat trees and bushes while grazers eat grass. The lip of the black rhino is pointed or hooked in order to pluck leaves from trees and bushes and the lip of the white rhino is squared or blunt to easily reach the ground for grass.
They have been hunted close to extinction in the past for the prized horn which is thought to possess magical medicinal properties particularly in Asian cultures. Currently, the black rhino population is around 5000 but poaching, if unchecked, could rapidly reduce those numbers again. I’ve posted this on my blog before, and if this is an animal you want to help save, go to Save the Rhino or Rocking for Rhinos to learn more.
One of my favorite exhibits was the Magellan penguins, named for the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first recorded sighting them in South America in 1519. I’m fascinated watching their awkward, lurching gait approaching the water, then they dive and glide through the water with the grace of synchronized swimmers.
This breed is only 18 inches tall unlike the Emperor penguins in Antarctica that stand 4 feet tall that I fell in love with watching the documentary, March of the Penguins. In both species, however, the males help with incubating the eggs. I love a good dad.
We missed several animals on our visit. The sea otters weren’t out because the tank was being cleaned and we didn’t see the giraffes either although I didn’t see any explanation of their absence. To compensate for missing the giraffes, Michael took a picture of Jim and me with the giraffe sculpture.
After our visit, I learned 7 animals at Blank Park Zoo are part of Species Survival Plans—the Amur (aka Siberian) tiger, snow leopard, red panda, Japanese macaque, ring-tailed lemur, golden headed tamarin, and Panamanian golden frog (Blank Park Zoo, 2014). This valuable work ensures the survival of animals that are threatened with extinction in their natural habitats. Despite my discomfort with constricted environments of zoo animals, I support these conservation efforts. Please join me and do all you can to support efforts to save our animals before it’s too late.
Blank Park Zoo (2014). Retrieved from http://www.blankparkzoo.com