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American adventures, 2015

Discussion in 'United States' started by CGSwans, 29 Jul 2015.

  1. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Today I visited Zoo Atlanta, the first of a handful of US zoos I will be visiting over the next three weeks, and in fact the first US zoo I've ever been to. On a very hot and steamy day, after about five hours sleep coming off the back of 30 hours in transit, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

    I'm only in Atlanta because of another place I'm intending to visit (bet you can't guess where) and Zoo Atlanta wouldn't have made the cut if it had to get by on its own. But it does have something special all of its own, which I'll get to shortly.

    Broadly speaking there are five zones or exhibit complexes in the zoo. The first, going clockwise from the entrance, is an uninspiring African Savannah complex. I'm pretty sure it's on Zoolex, but it's basically a set of barren yards for elephants, black rhinos and a mixed exhibit for giraffes, zebras, ostrich and lesser kudu. The lesser kudu were a first for me, so that was cool. I've seen greater kudu at Werribee but these kudu had horns, which makes them about 100% more impressive. There's a lion exhibit built around a fake kopje and smaller enclosures for Kori bustard, warthogs and meerkats. I almost missed the meerkats, which would have been a shame as they are such a rare species in captivity, and always seem to be displayed in new and original ways. There's another paddock that houses bongos and duikers, but they were both no-shows. The duikers would have been a first for me, but oh well.

    By the way, there's an unremarkable flamingo pool near the zoo's entrance and a walk-through aviary full of domesticated budgies of all sorts of colour mutations. I know these are popular but they are kinda lost on me, and I spent less than 30 seconds in there.

    'African Plains' segues into 'The Ford African Rainforest', the dominant portion of which is taken up by the no less than four huge gorilla enclosures. Gorillas will be something of a feature species of this trip and this was a good start. I think the zoo has something like 22 animals all up, which might even exceed the Australian population as a whole at the moment? The enclosures aren't especially beautiful (nothing at the zoo is, except for one notable exception) but they are big. Unlike almost of Australia's gorilla exhibits they have extensive grass cover, which the gorillas were busily grazing. There were several youngsters, one of which I was pleased to see had beaten the hot wire to get up into a tree's upper branches.

    The other part of the Ford rainforest is the 'Living Treehouse' - a walk-through bird aviary (walking along a covered boardwalk at tree height) which also provides views into two netted enclosures for ring-tailed and ruffed lemurs and drills and Wolf's guenons (both lifetime firsts for me). Seeing the lemurs cohabitating (I think there were trios of each, it wasn't a large enclosure) really did make me wonder why Melbourne built that big walk-through for ring-taileds and left their ruffed lemurs to go almost unnoticed in the last remaining great ape grotto behind it. Integrate them! This area also has another netted enclosure for colobus monkeys tucked in behind them.

    'Asian Forest' is a hodgepodge of good to average, with one great exhibit. That title is reserved for an immense habitat for orangutans. Both Sumatrans and Borneans were labelled here and to be honest I don't know which they were. There's a second smaller orang habitat as well so maybe they rotate for enrichment.

    The other big draws in 'Asia' are Sumatran tigers, sun bears and the biggest name of all, the giant pandas. All are in perfectly serviceable if unoriginal exhibits.mthe tiger one has four different viewing points yet still manages to afford the tiger a decent amount of privacy. It took me ages to find it and, given that Sumatran tigers are a bit old-hat for me I probably would have given up had it not been for the ease with which a group of school children found it earlier. My pride threatened, I finally found it camouflaged in the shadows by the back wall. Next to the tiger is a large-ish (at least twice the size of Singapore Night Safari) for clouded leopards. I don't have much luck with this species, they're always hiding as far from view as possible. All I saw was a blob of hair near the top of the exhibit.

    Smaller Asian species like Reeve's Muntjac (a really, really weird exhibit in which most of the glass had been tinted green, presumable to add privacy), raccoon dog (sleeping off the oppressive heat), wreathed hornbill, Komodo dragon, red panda (another no show) and binturong. Signage and theming throughout the zone pushes home a message aimed mostly at critiquing the wildlife trade in Asia.

    Alas, the complex name is becoming a misnomer as bush dogs, naked mole rats and fossa (lifetime first) have all crept in here. So too has a very pleasant surprise - giant otters. They were in a standard otter exhibit that was also signposted for small-clawed otters, and I wondered if they had a timeshare arrangement.

    In the southeast corner of the zoo is a hodgepodge zone of small exhibits, a children's zoo and various visitor amenities. the zoo map is quite inadequate here as the entire area is labarynthine, and I got well and truly lost. There's also quite a few animals on display that aren't labelled, including two-toed sloths in what I took to be a re-purposes aviary, Pygmy African hedgehog and a lot more aviaries than 'Exotic Birds' really does credit to on the map. There's also lots of tortoises - there must be close to 20 testudines species at Atlanta, all up.

    One visitor brought new warmth to this Zoochatter's cold, dead heart when he kept pointing out smaller, less common species to his children and saying 'they don't get no respect(!)' compared to the ABC animals that, to be fair, are present in great numbers throughout the zoo. Pretty much this entire section of the zoo is made up of very basic wood and wire structures that are more associated on this site with European rather than American zoos. But that's ok by me. Not everything has to cost a fortune to make me happy.

    During my visit I left the part I was most looking forward to - the new reptile house - to last, both to savour the anticipation and to take advantage of its air conditioning during the middle of the day. "Scaly, Slimy Specatcular" has a terrible name, but it is spectacular! Just a couple of months old, this is hands down the best reptile house I've ever seen. I took photos of every sign so when I get home I'll be able to post a full species list and a proper count of the number of exhibits, but for now take my word for it that SSS is worth the price of admission to Atlanta on its own.

    The terraria are generous in space, and for most of them that's a considerable understatement. To give just one example a pair of prehensile-tailed skinks had a terrarium that was the size of a luxury walk-in wardrobe. Most were smaller but I don't think there was a single exhibit that didn't go above and beyond the standard set for similar reptiles anywhere else I've been. Some of these herps have bigger enclosures, I imagine, than some Georgia prison inmates.

    The first two 'rooms', for lack of a better word, are within an enormous, high-ceiling atrium that gave the animals abundant natural light. Unfortunately there is a fair degree of reflection on the glass but I was there not long after noon and I suspect it affects different exhibits at different times. The terraria are all beautifully landscaped to reflect the micro-habitats of the species housed, and most if not all contained live plants. The visitor space is wide and unlike some reptile houses, the crowds weren't a significant bother. There's quite a few triangular-shaped terraria that are perhaps 2 metres in height, housing arboreal (though in a couple of cases terrestrial) reptiles. They had glass on all thr sides and I hope the zoo is monitoring to ensure the animals in these tanks aren't too stressed by the relative exposure. With relaxed enough animals they are fantastic, and some are landscaped very innovatively.

    Even the signage here is good. It uses electronic signs, which normally I'd hate because you can't control what you see at any one time. But these were touch-screen activated (do I vaguely recall a poster talking about providing such signs for an upcoming project on Zoochat at one point?) and allow the amount of info available, should a visitor want it, to be expanded without delivering a huge slab of text. For smaller tanks these touch screens provided signage for multiple enclosures, and again the user could bring whichever one they wanted to the screen. The collection ranges from iconic reptile house staples through to some amazing rarities, and somebody will have to prompt me in due course to post the species list.

    I'm sorry to say that I don't have a camera that's up to the task of publishing usable photos in humid conditions, so you will have to wait for a better-equipped visitor to document SSS for Zoochat. I don't know what sort of competition it has, but if something bests it in the AZA design awards it will have to be good.

    As an aside, there's a second, smaller reptile house adjacent to SSS that houses native Georgian reptiles. It seems half-finished, and includes a massive pool exhibit that I would have assumed is for American alligators if they weren't already inside SSS. There's also a stock-standard lawn exhibit for Aldabran giant tortoises outside.

    That's all for now. If you're flying Delta any time soon, think about building in enough of a layover in Atlanta to check out SSS. All up, the visit to the zoo took about 3.5 hours and that included doubling back a couple of times to various parts, as well as a good 35 minutes in the best reptile house I've ever seen.
     
  2. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Also, could a moderator please fix the typo in the thread name? I fear that in 900 years time even the new reptile house will be looking dated.
     
  3. devilfish

    devilfish Well-Known Member

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    Brilliant review. I'm glad SSS impresssed. Sounds very interesting.
    I look forward to following the rest of your adventures. Will you be based in one area or travelling around?
    Are you visiting the botanical gardens whilst in Atlanta?
     
  4. zooman

    zooman Well-Known Member

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    Hi CGS, thx for the review, young gorillas in the tree tops would have been a joy to watch! will you be visiting the Aquarium?
     
  5. Maguari

    Maguari Never could get the hang of Thursdays. Premium Member

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    Do they still have Geoffroy's Tamarins mixed with the sloths? They were my biggest Atlanta surprise when I was in town, like yourself, passing-through-but-wanting-to-do-A-Certain-Something-while-there-so-obviously-doing-the-zoo-as-well ( ;) ). Was only expecting a chance of one new mammal at Atlanta (Wolf's Guenon, having missed out them at Lowry Park) but ended up with two very nice new primates (and a new wild mammal - Eastern Chipmunk) and a much more interesting and pleasant zoo than I'd envisaged. This was in the days of the old Reptile House, but even that was very impressive.

    I spent a similar amount of time at the zoo, but had got there early, so there was time to bus it up to the botanical gardens to see some weird frogs and do some urban birding afterwards. And then the next day, I did the Certain Something - of which there is doubtless more to follow! :D
     
  6. BedildaSue

    BedildaSue Well-Known Member

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    It is I, the diligent Zoochatter, asking when will you post the species list for the new reptile house? :)
     
  7. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Not before I get home, which isn't for about three weeks, sorry. I took photos of every sign on my camera, but have no way of downloading them before I get home (and possibly for a week or two after,maps I will need to visit my parents' house to access a PC).

    Thoughts on Somewhere Else in Atlanta are coming... Soon.
     
  8. BedildaSue

    BedildaSue Well-Known Member

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    The Georgia Aquarium?! Wheeee! I love that aquarium.
     
  9. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Sorry for neglecting this thread. I've been feeling unwell for the past three days and have been focusing as much of my time as I can on making the most of my trip. :) I actually had already half-composed this post but lost it, so hopefully the writing doesn't suffer too much from trying to recreate what had gone before.

    Somewhere Else is, of course, the Georgia Aquarium. The only reason I had ventured to Atlanta and one of the big (but not only) reasons why this trip was to the U.S. at all.

    First of all I want to make a slight criticism of their ticketing system. To control crowds they have timed tickets, which is fair enough, but I almost missed out because they only allow an hour's grace from the time shown on the ticket in order to get in. Not a lot of time for an international visitor to get lost, as I did. Even more annoying over-officiousness came later when I attempted to get a pass out. With my bus out of Atlanta leaving at 6, I wanted to spend the morning at the Aquarium, leave during the busiest period of the day to see the adjacent Center for Civil and Human Rights, then return for the afternoon. This was very nearly derailed by an inexplicable rule that pass outs cannot be longer than 60 minutes. It was only by repeated questioning about why, when what I was doing would actually *reduce*' congestion during the peak time, that I was granted two hours and 20 minutes to see the museum. I'm glad I did, btw, and would urge anybody in Atlanta to see it too. It's a much more worthwhile couple of hours than a museum dedicated to fizzy drink.

    Back to the Aquarium. There are only five galleries at present, with Georgia Explorer being closed for renovations. I took the approach of visiting them in reverse order of eagerness to see, so as to build up to a (filter) feeding frenzy of excitement. First cab off the rank, then, was River Scout.

    The best tank is the one that mostly sits over the head of visitors and snakes around across much of the gallery. It contains alligator gars, river sturgeons and a handful of less interesting US river fish. I also liked the albino alligators - I know many here have an in-principle dislike of exhibits of genetic mutations, but I'm fine with it as long as a) there's no welfare implications for the animals and b) programs for species aren't being compromised. As far as I know neither applies to the alligators.

    Apart from that the next most notable part of River Scout is a dreadfully over-themed small clawed otter habitat with no soft surfaces at all, which looked like something Merlin would conjure up. There's a decent tank for BIG piranha (I wish I'd been able to see a feeding), a very large Lake Malawi cichlid tank (complete with the very rare African pig-nosed turtle) and a smattering of tanks for frankly insignificant pet shop standards.

    Verdict: meh.

    I next went to see 'Dolphin Tales'. There's only one exhibit in this section, which is a later addition to the overall complex. It's an unremarkable pool for bottle-nosed dolphins and an attached stadium ('auditorium' would be under-selling it, there's at least a couple of thousand seats) for the weirdest thing I've seen since Michael Jackson stopped having plastic surgery.

    The show tells the story of a fellow named Sail Spinner, or something like that, who had a ship and was apparently great friends with dolphins. Sea Monsters - which look like a sturgeon that mated with a sailboat - were jealous of Storm Slinger's friendship with the dolphins so they sunk his boat. Nasty. Song Singer's plan for raising it from the ocean depths involved lots of him singing, the audience singing, water cannons firing, sound and light effects blaring and trainers riding dolphins. Really, where the dolphins came into Star Sailor's plan wasn't clear at all. Regardless, as Shape Shifter was singing his way back into a sailing career dolphins performed a handful of stock-standard tricks (many of which involved trainers riding on their backs or noses), without anything in the way of explanation of what they were doing for the visitors. From what I gather, Sloop Slider got his boat back, so everything's ok. All this took half an hour and, incredibly, photography was banned.

    Verdict: :confused:

    After the dada poem disguised as a dolphin show ended it was time to check out Tropical Diver. As with River Scout, I felt this area wasn't fully realised. The centrepiece is the very large coral reef tank, which is impressive in an ok-it's-bigger-than-other-coral-reef-tanks kind of way. I dunno if I was just being uncharitable but for whatever reason this one didn't grab me. The section also has a series of smaller tanks for jellyfish, the obligatory 'Nemo' tank, one for frog and scorpionfish, a couple of tanks starring seahorses and razor fish and a secondary reef tank. Nothing wrong with this area, just not anything that other aquariums haven't done before.

    Verdict: Coldwater Quest and Ocean Voyager better be good.

    Finally it was time to get to the real things I came to the other side of the world for. Beluga whales! Sea otters! Whale sharks!

    I did CWQ first. The big tank here is for belugas (3) and grey seals (also 3). Both lifetime firsts, but to be honest only the belugas had my attention. The tank is by no means small, though whether it's big *enough* I'm in no position to judge. The whales had developed a habit of bouncing off the acrylic as they did their circuits of the tank - but my gut feel is that they were just being lazy and pushing off the wall like lap swimmers do. One of the belugas was harassing a seal and I was pleased to observe during the day that the seals only seem to share the exhibit for part of the time.

    The other big lifer for me were the sea otters. How these things aren't yet the subject of an animated movie I don't understand. Ridiculously charismatic and surely will eventually a mainstream zoo species if breeding successes allow it. The aquarium has five, split into groups of two and three respectfully. One was initially rescued by Monterey Bay but resisted release. The exhibit is neither here nor there, but seems adequate for the small groups using it.

    Things that made less of an impression were a rookery for African penguins (looked like nesting was underway), and a couple of fish tanks including a kelp tank that reinforced my desire to one day see Monterey Bay and an *enormous* octopus.

    Finally, Ocean Explorer. This is the second mega-tank I've seen after SEA Aquarium in February, and it's even more impressive. It's so vast that at no point - despite more than two hours spent at the exhibit in total - could I see all four whale sharks and all four manta rays at once. The most I ever got was 7/8 and more often it was four or five. The tank is something crazy like 88 metres across. (44m wide, with both measurements possibly a metre or two off due to dodgy memory) - from the main viewing window you can't see the back, which apparently has another big window for a function venue.

    The mantas here appear bigger than Singapore's and of course here they are simply the support act for the whale sharks. But at least you notice them. Ordinarily headlining species like bowmouth guitarfish, leopard sharks (zebra sharks to these confused Americans), smooth stingrays and Maori wrasses are just lost in the vastness of this tank. I can't judge with any authority how adequate it is for the whale sharks but all I'll say is they didn't seem crowded, they virtually never got in each other's way and if anything their circuitous cruises around the tank didn't use the full length.

    In sum, most of Georgia Aquarium feels like unrealised potential. The headline acts were undeniably worth the trip for, and I'm glad I went for them alone. The aquarium lacks depth (yep, intended) in the collection, and doesn't have that many more exhibits than most regular sized aquaria. The draw are is the really, really big and charismatic species, which no aquarium in the world is able to feature like Georgia Aquarium does. I just wish there were more side exhibits to complement them.
     
  10. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I just read ever word of this thread and I'm enjoying it so far. Your review of Georgia Aquarium sums up what many people think: one unbelievably awesome tank and then a fairly generic, standard aquarium after that. Keep the reviews coming and I hope that you are feeling better! Also, any chance of posting an itinerary?
     
  11. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Nope, more fun for me this way. :) There aren't really any surprises, though.
     
  12. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Apologies for slipping behind, will work to catch up.

    After a first few days in Washington, DC that were clouded over by illness (though I pushed through and got to do almost everything on my agenda), I finally made it to the Smithsonian National Zoo on Tuesday. This wasn't necessarily a 'destination' zoo, though it would've have been in a top ten or so if this were purely a zoo trip. Regardless, with a lifelong fascination for US politics Washington was always going to be a major part of my first visit to the US, and naturally that includes one of the world's most famous and storied zoos.

    During the summer the grounds are open from 6am through until 8pm, although the buildings remain closed until 10. I thought I would take advantage of that and head in early, both to escape the heat and crowds expected later in the day and to maximise my remaining time in Washington. I arrived around 7. Unfortunately, as it turns out the gates being open does not necessarily mean animals will be visible. Nearly all were in their night dens, and I think at least some must have been shut in overnight or it's just not statistically plausible that I was that far out of luck. DC residents must have known better than I, for I didn't see another zoo goer until around 9am. There were, however, plenty of joggers.

    In what might be emerging as a theme of this trip (more on that later), this was a visit where I started out underwhelmed and appreciated the zoo more as the day went on. Seeing animals probably helps. With a dearth of visible animals I had actually covered virtually the entire zoo before 9:30, so I at least had a decent sense of my way around. Once the zoo took on a more inhabited vibe (after 9 or so) I spent a good 5 hours or so traipsing around. The zoo is too big and the visit was too long, with too much backtracking, for me to attempt to do a chronological account of my visit, so I'll confine myself to a few disjointed remarks that vaguely follow the zoo map from top to bottom.

    Asia Trail is excellent. Along with the American Trail it is one of two relatively modern exhibit complexes in the zoo, and it has the best exhibit design and aesthetics of the entire park. The feature species here is, of course, the giant pandas. They had three (I think?) big outdoor yards which were the best of the now-four panda exhibits I've seen, but it being 35ish degrees they were naturally enough in their indoor dens, where they were doing what pandas do. Namely, sitting on their backsides eating bamboo.

    My luck was mixed with the other species in the Trail. I got my first good look at a clouded leopard since Melbourne's one died all those years ago. The sloth bear (a first for me, after a no-show at Night Safari in February) was stereotypically pacing back and forth constantly, and I subsequently noticed a sign saying that the zoo is conducting a research project into what prompts/exacerbates/lessens the behaviour. I liked that the zoo doesn't shy away from explaining to visitors what is happening and what they're trying to do in response. I saw the Japanese giant salamander, which was, as expected, just a brownish grey blob in a brownish grey tank. The fishing cat was about as easily spotted as I've ever seen one, which may skew the data for the poor volunteer who was conducting a survey on how easily visitors were finding the animals. Red pandas were off display, alas, as they had been at Atlanta.

    As mentioned American Trails is the other section that stands out as being built in the more recent past. It's not quite as good as Asia (it's more stark and exposed) but it provides decent enough habitats for sea lions, harbour seals, grey wolves (a first) and river otters. There's a beaver exhibit but I was not at all surprised not to see any beavers. There's also the obligatory aviary for rehab bald eagles (I imagine every American zoo has these, and that not having them constitutes some sort of seditious offence or something) and an aviary for... Ravens? Really? I guess now that I think about it I haven't seen any in my two weeks in urban America, so maybe there's a point to having them in zoos that was lost on an Australia.

    One thing that can be gleaned from the above two sections is that this is very much a 'carnivore' zoo, in the same way that I considered Singapore to be primarily about primates. There must have been close to 20 species, perhaps more. I didn't keep an accurate count.

    Other, older outdoor sections of the zoo include a series of paddocks at the top end of the zoo which had no particular unifying theme. They include the entire hoof stock collection, which is small but is made up largely of species that have relied on captive breeding to survive, including bison, Przewalski's horse, scimitar-horned oryx and dama gazelle. Also in this area are Grevy's zebra, cheetah and maned wolf. If I had to guess at what brings these species together it would be that I assume the Smithsonian's off-display breeding facility works with all of them? I don't know. Anyway none of the paddocks are particularly noteworthy but there was nothing wrong either. They were just a bit dated.

    The same applies to the large but uninteresting Asian elephant complex that's wedged between Asia and American Trails, and which appears to be home to three cows. It had multiple viewing points from within the Asia Trail, a walk bridge over the elephant yard to the bird collection and from a dedicated elephant area. And it's *also* true of the weird concrete mountain thing that houses Sumatran tigers and African lions. There's photos in the gallery so I won't bother trying to describe it.

    Outdoor odds n sods include:
    - concrete grottoes for Andean bears, with two very entertaining cubs.
    - a large island that allegedly had ring-tailed lemurs and another lemur species (I forget which). I say 'allegedly' because I never saw anybody home in multiple passes. It was weird because it had a big mock rock mountain with fountains on it, which didn't really scream 'lemur' to me.
    - my first encounters with North American porcupine and prairie dogs.
    - small netted enclosures for bobcat and caracal near the lions and tigers.
    - a large farm section I had no interest in.
    - a giant anteater yard which was cool because unlike my first anteater sighting (about 2 seconds at River Safari) I saw this one for about 10 seconds before it disappeared. Heading in the right direction!

    Apologies for what is becoming a very long and no doubt boring post, but bear with me. This zoo is the first I've ever been to that makes extensive use of 'houses'. In Australia the only common indoor complexes are for reptiles and for nocturnal animals. Here we got not only the reptiles but also a bird house, small mammal house, as well as extensive indoor viewing for the apes and a tropical house. My overall take is that it's better to have these buildings than not have them, in climates that aren't suitable for year-round outdoor access. But if at all possible... Build outside.

    I'll pay the least attention to the reptile house because it was most familiar. I probably would have paid much more attention had I not been at Atlanta only a week earlier. As it was, there was a collection that was probably larger and held more new species for me but which was presented in such an unoriginal and uniform way that it didn't stand out at all. It's not just *what* you have on display, but *how*. Washington's displays were simply boring. I also didn't get a lot out of the a Think Tank or ape house (though the TT did have a lot of good background info on the behavioural research they're conducting). I found the gorilla enclosure to be very 'meh' both inside and out.

    The bird house is about to undergo a major renovation, to be converted into a new exhibit that will focus on bird migration. I don't know anything about how that will be realised or how it affects the existing collection, but by the time I had arrived several of the indoor bird enclosures were empty in preparation. The only big deal species for me here was a kiwi, but too much loud noise (from idiot zoo visitors) and light (from a poorly designed exhibit) meant I was never really in the frame to get this rather significant life tick.

    I just don't really get watching birds from behind glass, I guess. It's no more visually intrusive than wire (indeed, it's less) but glass and solid walls are also a hell of a lot less useful to most birds than wire is. I like the aesthetic of outdoor aviaries, when done right. The indoor rooms just can't provide a comparably complex environment. The Bird House area does have a series of yards and mews for larger birds like vultures, cranes, flamingoes and so which are outside.

    Amazonia was, similarly, my first experience of an indoor rainforest house, although the outdoor Fragile Forest in Singapore is substantively the same genre but in an appropriate climate. I liked this better than the bird house, because the usable space for the birds (more or less Amazon mixed species aviary standards) was so much greater. I didn't see any of the monkeys (Goeldi's and *I think* GLTs that lived in here but did find a two-toed sloth hanging around. In addition to a series of fish tanks (from pet shop standards up to pacus, freshwater stingray and Arapaima) there was also a very good room full of amphibian tanks and what I thought looked like a nice classroom for school groups. All in all, I suspect Amazonia is a bit older and smaller than most rainforest houses out there, but I enjoyed it.

    Finally (finally!) I want to finish up with the Small Mammal House. It's not quite my first experience of such an exhibit - I've seen the much smaller Critters Longhouse at Singapore Zoo, and indoor mammal enclosures are familiar from Australian nocturnal houses - but it's certainly the lost extensive. For the most part the exhibit quality isn't quite there, and the housing ranges from clearly too small (sand cat!) to some wonderfully big, usable spaces for some other species. But what blew me away was the sheer diversity on display. In all of Australia there are 15 orders of mammals in zoos, with two of them on the way out. This one building, alone, contained 12 orders of mammals (as well as one bird order, due to the presence of burrowing owls). Is this de rigueur for those Zoochatters who don't live under the yoke of quarantine hyper-paranoia?

    Overall I really enjoyed the Smithsonian National Zoo. It shows its age in many places, which surely isn't helped by the budget inertia a certain strain of US political thought imposes on public institutions. While in Washington, though, I saw signs of work being done on many parts of the Smithsonian Institution, including the construction of a new Museum of African-American Culture and redevelopments of the Air and Space, Natural History and American History museums. Hopefully some of the money finds its way to the zoo, as I'm satisfied it's capable of taking its (rightful, in my view) place in the top tier of world zoos.
     
  13. PAT

    PAT Well-Known Member

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    That review was definitely not boring. I always appreciate an Australians point of view when it comes to international zoos.
     
  14. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I also did not think the review was boring at all and I actually quite enjoyed the rambling style and re-read certain sections twice. I agree that it is shocking that an Australian visitor can spend a short time in a single Small Mammal House in America and see almost as many orders of mammals as in the entire continent of Australia. As someone who has toured 18 Aussie zoos I can attest to the fact that there is an enormous lack of diversity in that nation and so it was interesting to read about someone else's opinion. Australia as a nation is somewhere that I'd love to live, there are several really great zoos, but overall the complete absence of a long list of species due to quarantine laws is rather staggering. The flip side is that Oz has some incredible species seen nowhere else in the world!
     
  15. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    you know you don't need to go to America to see a kiwi! :p

    I know what you mean about birds in glass-fronted boxes. (Apart for nocturnal houses, which is quite understandable). I think the only such example I have been to is Frankfurt's bird house about ten years ago, and it had a weird "wrong" sort of feel to it.
     
  16. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    lum te tum.... just sitting here waiting for the thread to resume.....
     
  17. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    My apologies, I did rather let this thread slip. Part of the reason, apart from my terrible time management, is that I was wrestling with how to write this post. I fear that some won't know what to make of it.

    Apart from a brief visit to Central Park Zoo (which is really too small to bother with a post on), my next stop was Bronx Zoo. You know, that one that's at least in the conversation for Best Zoo in the World. The home of the most famous immersive exhibit complex on the planet. A behemoth of a zoo in a behemoth of a city. And it really is that good.

    And yet... and yet... I didn't love it. How, then, does one write about a zoo that is (nearly) everything it claims to be and should be, but that doesn't quite set your heart on fire? I shall have to try.

    I fear that my visit may have been primed for a slight failure from the start. I'd had a wretched morning that wasn't helped by encountering three fairly egregious examples of that famous New York attitude in the space of an hour. Then my train ticket wouldn't work at the subway station I needed to use, necessitating a rather circuitous route to the zoo that got me there 35 minutes after opening. That was annoying because Bronx already has a too-short opening time of seven hours, and I was reluctant to pay extra for another day at the zoo. Luckily I managed to see everything in the time I did have, after all.

    Anyway, I was probably not feeling well-disposed towards anything by the time I got to the zoo. But that's not the full story, I think.

    Usually I try to hold back from going straight to the biggest attractions at a zoo, wanting to savour the anticipation and allow every part of a place to stand on its merits, not being left in the shade by the best the zoo has to offer. I didn't follow that approach at Bronx because of the afore-mentioned concern about fitting everything in. If I were to have to come back I reasoned that I might come on the free day to save money, in which case it made sense for me to focus my attention on the separate admission exhibits (namely Congo Gorilla Forest, Jungleworld, the Wild Asia monorail and Children's Zoo). So I made a beeline straight for the Congo.

    I'm not going to write about absolutely everything, btw, as this post would be far too long and I would be in bed far, far too late.

    The theming here really is good - the thing that grabbed me the most was the weird, spongey, artificial forest floor surface that you walk on through part of the complex. Details, people, details. I liked seeing the mixed-species mandrill/red river hog/monkey that I've forgotten exhibit. One benefit of being in a country with less regressive quarantine laws is that you actually have enough animals available to mix things without making your zoo too small!

    The gorilla exhibit is amazing, of course - one thing I liked was seeing the younger gorillas with access to trees! Something Melbourne could learn from. Also, there were three or four infants all at the same time, which gives the group a vibrancy that Melbourne's troop has lacked for a long time. I didn't see the movie that's supposed to precede the first glimpse into the enclosure (I would have had to wait around about 15 minutes to see it, which I was disinclined to do) so I perhaps missed a bit of the intended 'wow' factor.

    Nothing's perfect, though. I could still spot hotwire, for instance, which lends support to my nagging suspicion that landscape immersion, as great as it is in theory, never quite works in practice. For all the tens of millions spent, I was still standing in a room looking through glass at gorillas in what, with my semi-trained eye, I could tell was an enclosed space. That's not a criticism of Congo Gorilla Forest so much as it is an admission of the inherent limitations of trying to 'recreate' a wild habitat. It can't be done, people.

    Another little irritant in Congo Gorilla Forest reminded me of one observation I'd made at the Central Park Zoo the day before. What does WCS have against readable species signs? They have used orange writing on black backgrounds on many of their signs for small terraria at both zoos; I assume that the orange was once much brighter than it is now but it's since faded to the point that for some tanks I couldn't find the writing at all, much less read it. Some of the small tanks inside the Congo Gorilla Forest complex were among the worst offenders for this.

    Gorillas weren't the only thing in the Congo that I was focused on. My biggest mammal target species for this trip were okapi and giant anteaters. I'd seen a shadow of a giant anteater for a few seconds in Singapore and that's much the same as my experience of seeing an okapi in New York. I saw it in silhouette, through a thick patch of vegetation that it was standing on the other side of. I could get an appreciation of its size (bigger than I imagined, in contrast to most mammals I see for the first time), but that was all. In truth it was a bit of a bust. A later return later in the day had even worse luck - even the silhouette was gone.

    Moving on from Congo I walked through the utterly unremarkable pheasant aviaries and back around to the Mouse House. This was one of my most eagerly anticipated parts of the zoo, but it was a real letdown. Lots of repetitive little tanks for various rodents, in which I perhaps had about a 30% or so success rate of finding the animals. What really stuck in my head, though, was a fennec fox pacing back and forth in a box that was perhaps about 2 metres long. I looked for some sign that it had access to an outdoors space and couldn't find any. What is it about this species that it so regularly gets short-changed of space, and outside of Australia at least, fresh air?

    These are intelligent, active little canids that shouldn't be housed like reptiles. I was appalled at the fennec fox enclosure, and seeing it perhaps coloured the rest of my visit. What I realised later was that what I was feeling was sort of like coming back down to earth. Here I was at one of the undisputed leaders of the zoo world, a place that is rightly feted here on Zoochat... and it still had its examples of frankly just not good enough exhibits.

    Next I headed down to the Asian section, with a stopover at the Baboon Reserve. This was another enclosure that I was really excited about but didn't get as much out of as I expected. It's an easy fix - all that's needed are more geladas. I only saw four, I think, and it demands a much larger troop. Other than that the exhibit has much of what I like most. It's a simple design that nevertheless makes for a complex habitat (with three mixed species) and what could be, with more geladas, a very lively display for visitors.

    Happily, my feelings towards Jungleworld were mostly positive. Yes, the leopard fish tank is too small. Every leopard enclosure I've ever seen has been small. Why is that? Anyway, the one redeeming feature the fish tank has is effective use of vertical space. It'd be pretty good for an ocelot or something. The tapir space is limited but they have good access to water for swimming which, unfortunately, can not be said for most tapir exhibits I've seen. I didn't find the gibbons but saw all of the other major species listed in the complex.

    Wild Asia was also solid. I thought I had written down a list of species featured on this ride, but if so I have since deleted it from my phone. Ho hum. Anyway a couple of big name firsts for me were gaur and Siberian tiger, which were one of my big targets on the American trip. The tiger I saw was bathing in a small pond as the tram passed it, and I didn't get more than about 15 seconds to watch. Also, it was a relatively young tiger so it didn't look much bigger than a Sumatran, which was disappointing because I wanted to conceptualise how big the world's largest cat really is. The tram driver then promptly crushed my dreams by saying you could see *Malayan* tigers, rather than Siberians, at the Tiger Mountain exhibit. So much for conceptualising how big Siberians can get.

    After the Asian section I made my way towards the afore-mentioned Tiger Mountain and the surrounding exhibits. There's a pair of bear exhibits - one for grizzlies, another for polar bears - and they were quite a contrast. The grizzly bear enclosure impressed me a lot - spacious, with varied topography and substrates for the bears - but the polar bear one was a stark, concrete affair. I'd like to go through the history books, determine who first decided that bears need to be on hard, unforgiving surfaces and... throw them in a bear pit. There's no good reason for it. The polar bear enclosure was another, then, that brought me back down to earth a bit.

    Tiger Mountain looks great but, in keeping with my fairly poor luck with tigers throughout the trip so far, I didn't see a tiger, Malayan or otherwise. I did manage to spot the snow leopards in the Himalayan Highlands (though not red pandas, which had similarly been persistent no-shows across the trip). A friend of mine who raves about Bronx came in the Winter, and these two exhibits (Himalayan and Tiger Mountain) were covered in snow. I'd love to see that - Bronx must be such a different experience between Summer and Winter because of the climate extremes.

    You might have worked out that by this time I was feeling a little underwhelmed with my visit. In fact, it was more of an existential crisis. I was at a contender for world's best zoo and I wasn't enjoying it nearly as much as I expected. I wondered if, by having broken out of my Australian isolation this year, I had actually dispelled the magic of zoos. Animals I'd only ever seen in photos and videos had come to life, between this trip and the Singapore one, but had I become indifferent? Maybe I just didn't like zoos as much as I thought I did?

    Anyway, I was there, and I pushed on. The visit started to get better from this point, perhaps because my expectations were re-calibrated. World of Reptiles is solid, with a collection comparable to either Washington or Atlanta (big reptile collections are a thing in the US, evidently) and with exhibit quality somewhere between the two. More of those wretched illegible signs, though.

    World of Birds (and the further bird collections further north in the zoo) was actually a very pleasant surprise. A much better collection than in Washington, with many rarities, and better quality aviaries within the building. The 'open' aviaries are a bit weird - I have trouble believing that birds really never fly out of them into the rest of the building, but I guess if they do it's an aberration. Either way there's nothing better when exhibiting birds than to have no physical barrier between you and the birds. A couple of the indoor aviaries still lacked a little in usable space; they need to install more perching material along the walls of each room.

    I was also caught unawares by how large World of Birds is, because I didn't know there was a whole second level. I had to go outside and then back in to access it and to this day I'm not entirely sure whether I was on a higher floor of the first building, or in a separate building altogether. Anyway, I found myself in by far the most secluded part of the zoo all day. In all the 15 minutes or so I spent in this section the only person other than me was a volunteer who was stationed behind a table there. I spoke to her briefly and she confirmed that it's the least visited part of the zoo. Such a shame because, among other things, this is where I saw my first ever kea! Another major target species ticked off and the first one at the Bronx that I actually got a decent look at. I also saw, sort of, my first kiwi. Unlike at the Smithsonian it wasn't in a noisy and overly-busy area, but all I saw was a brown blob that didn't move at all. I maintain that I will only tick animals off my life list if I get an actual, good quality look at my leisure. The kiwi doesn't count, alas.

    Madagascar! is fantastic, though a bit smaller than I thought it was. Two very, very cool new species (sifakas and ring-tailed mongooses), and it was great to see ring-tailed lemurs in a not-rainforest. Though having visited Melbourne the other day I realised that its walk-through is also spiny forest themed, just not as obviously as Madagascar!. One rather obvious and strange omission from Madagascar!, though, were chameleons. Where were they?

    The newest part of the Bronx Zoo, and the last that I got to on my loop through the zoo, is the new Children’s Zoo. It’s pretty good, as far as Children’s Zoos go, but Children’s Zoos always have rather basic exhibits from what I’ve seen, and I don’t really have much to say about it. The highlight here was getting a genuinely-more-than-ten-seconds look at a giant anteater!

    By this time it was pushing around 4PM, and after worrying that I wouldn’t have enough time I’d ended up with enough leeway to make second visits through Congo Gorilla Forest and Jungleworld. I went from one to the other via the giraffe building, where I missed out on yet another major first, with the aardvark a complete no-show. A subsequent look at the map tells me the only thing I missed seeing was a paddock for Thomson’s gazelle. Obviously I would have preferred to see it than not but I can live with the omission, and I didn’t return later in the week.

    So what to make of my visit? As much as I had felt deflated at times during the day, at closing time I stopped and compared it in my head with the other major city zoos I’ve been to - Melbourne, Adelaide, Taronga, Singapore, Atlanta and Washington. The conclusion was that Bronx really *is* better than all of them. The standard, though uneven, is on average higher than the rest. But it’s not as *much* higher as I’d allowed myself to imagine. The best zoo in the world is still a zoo. That’s not a criticism, of course. I like zoos!

    Would I have had a better day if I’d had better luck with the okapi, the Siberian tiger, the kiwi and the aardvark? Without a doubt. If I hadn’t been rushed and irritated when I got there, would I have been in a better mood? Yeah, probably. But I suspect I’d set Bronx up to fail simply by anticipating it too much.

    I expect to return to the US in the foreseeable future (probably in 2020) and I will certainly aim to go to the Bronx again. It deserves a second chance to make a first impression and I don’t doubt I would get an enormous amount out of it. Until then it will just have to sit in a category of its own, admired, but unloved.
     
  18. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    that was good. I didn't mind waiting for it. Bronx Zoo would be top of my American zoos to visit, so I wonder how I would perceive it. There are only a few American zoos I am actually interested in seeing (Bronx, San Diego, Desert Museum, a very few others) - for many of the other zoos I can't see the attraction in going to see a First World zoo with cages better suited for the Third World; I can do that in Asia.

    was this a good detail, or not? I wasn't quite sure of your intent with the comment. I think the material must be the same, or similar, to that used in the Melbourne Aquarium in one area (where the archerfish lagoon and invertebrates are). It looks like leaf litter, but it is made of rubber. I thought it was great. I actually had to get down and have a feel of it to see how it was done.
     
  19. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    I think the overall quality of zoos in the US are quite a bit above most of what you've described in Asia.

    Yes! Thank you! It was nagging away at me that it seemed somehow familiar but I couldn't figure out where, and I had abandoned the thought because I assumed I was just confused.

    My comment in the post above is certainly intended to be positive.
     
  20. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    oh yes, I don't doubt that for a minute. However with America (or Europe) standards should be so much higher that cages such I see in some photos in the galleries simply should not happen. And I don't just mean the "roadside zoos" like that Great Cats World Park in Oregon, or the Capital Of Texas Zoo. Zoos like Cincinnati simply have no excuse for the tiny boxes they keep some of their animals in.