Join our zoo community

EcoTarium EcoTarium Review- "A Surprise to be Sure, But a Welcome One"

Discussion in 'United States' started by ZooElephantMan, 13 Aug 2022.

  1. ZooElephantMan

    ZooElephantMan Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    Joined:
    19 Apr 2015
    Posts:
    1,111
    Location:
    Massachusetts
    Background

    On July 24th, I visited the EcoTarium in Worcester (pronounced WU-STR o_O), Massachusetts, for the very first time. The EcoTarium was founded in 1825, and is apparently the 2nd oldest natural history museum in the United States. The property spans 60 acres, and contains a small children’s museum / natural history museum, as well as a large outdoor space with 2 ponds, 6 nature trails, and several animal habitats. One of these habitats was once home to Kenda the Polar Bear (0.1), a local celebrity who was born at the science center in 1983, and who lived there until she passed in 2011. The habitat has now been converted into the EcoTarium’s “Wild Cat Station” which the facility claims to be among the largest mountain lion exhibits in the United States of America.


    My Expectations

    Before visiting the EcoTarium, I had somewhat low expectations. I had asked @Neil chace and one of my real-life friends about the facility. Between the two of them, I gathered that the science center was intended for a child audience (meaning I was not part of the target demographic). My friend had not visited since he was a kid, but he had a low opinion of Kenda’s former exhibit, and he gave me the impression that the EcoTarium’s habitats are lower quality than what you would find at most AZA zoos (the EcoTarium has never been AZA accredited, but is currently seeking accreditation).

    In the end, I decided to check the place out because my curiosity got the better of me. I went with my aforementioned friend, who I dragged along in the spirit of nostalgia.


    The Visit

    The day of my visit can be described in two words: “Really, really, hot.” :p

    The heat framed the way we organized our day. We decided to do the outdoor nature trails first, then cool off inside before seeing a few more outdoor exhibits, and finally heading back home.

    We began by walking down the Meadow trail, which led to the North American river otter enclosure (Lontra Canadensis). The trailside meadow was planted with native species, with the goal of demonstrating a healthy New England ecosystem. Once we reached the otter exhibit, I was immediately impressed with what I was seeing. In front of us stood a large underwater viewing window, looking out into a ~3,300 gallon pool, beyond which sprawled a ~3,000 square foot exhibit (thanks, Google Earth). The exhibit was particularly impressive because I had just visited the Stone Zoo around a week prior, and their NARO exhibit was 3x smaller than the EcoTarium’s, and lacked underwater viewing. After the otters, the path curved by a small pond, where we saw a wild blue heron (Ardea Herodias). It was nice to see the otters exhibited alongside a natural freshwater ecosystem. By putting their animal exhibits in the context of the real natural world around us, the EcoTarium crafted a cohesive and immersive visitor experience.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    Past the pond was the EcoTarium’s “Raptors” area, which consisted of two simple meshed-over exhibits for some rescued barred owls (Strix Varia), as well as golden and bald Eagles (Aquila Chrysaetos and Haliaeetus Leucocephalus). Further on, the path led to the museum’s front entrance.

    The museum’s interior was a lot like most children’s museums, with large colorful graphics and interactive educational activities. The first couple exhibits focused on the abiotic components of ecosystems. There was a small geology exhibit showcasing different types of rocks, and an exhibit all about wind and hurricanes. The wind exhibit also contained a wind-generator-machine, which was a great way to cool off from the heat.

    After the wind and geology exhibits were some that focused more on biota. The museum had a small selection of carnivorous plants, and a medium-sized collection of taxidermy animals (including a walrus, a tiger, a variety of African hoofstock, and several shelves of stuffed birds (including a passenger pigeon!)).

    The museum also contained exhibits for some smaller reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and small mammals. I was impressed with some of these terrariums, like the ones for the wood turtle (Glyptemys Insculpta) and the spiny softshell turtle (Apalone Spinifera). The softshell exhibit in particular included a large land area with varied substrates, and a nice water area with underwater viewing. The turtle itself was very active, nosing around through the sand as it swam. Like the EcoTarium’s otter enclosure, these indoor terrariums provided the animals with far more space than terrariums I had seen at comparable institutions.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    We exited the museum building out the back, and were met with a plaza which contained a food stand; a life-sized sculpture of a stegosaurus; and a small building known as Animal Corner, which houses a woodchuck (Marmota Monax), a couple small birds of prey, and two flying squirrels (genus Glaucomys). Down the path, we passed an outdoor forest play area, a red fox exhibit, and the EcoTarium’s second pond, which led us to the mountain lion habitat.

    The mountain lion enclosure is perhaps what the EcoTarium is best known for. The institution claims that it is 18,500 square feet, and among the largest mountain lion habitats in the country. And as home to the facility’s largest living animals, the enclosure may also be considered a highlight for laymen visitors and other megafauna enthusiasts. The exhibit was very clearly a renovated version of the old Polar Bear grotto with the pool filled in, grass and substrates added, underwater viewing removed, and mesh thrown over the top. The exhibit had really nice signage, talking about the role mountain lions play in their ecosystems, and advocating for reintroducing the species into the northeastern United States (where they have since been extirpated). The exhibit seemed to be nice enough and enriching for the cats, even though it was not as immersive as the otter exhibit from the beginning of the tour.

    [​IMG]


    The Overall Experience

    The day after I went to the EcoTarium, I would have described my visit as “a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one”. It surpassed a lot of my expectations, going in. I was impressed with the size and quality of the different exhibits. I didn’t mind the kids focus, because there were definitely large parts of the science center that were accessible for all ages. I also really liked the vibe that the EcoTarium gave off as a Zoo-Museum hybrid. I typically enjoy the educational aspects of zoos more than the entertainment aspects (like amusement park rides). As a museum, the EcoTarium fit with this personal preference very well. The EcoTarium’s museum-like status also affected the behavior of the other visitors. Visitors are generally more respectful in museum environments than in zoo environments, and that was true here-- I noticed far less screaming and tapping on glass than I have seen in the past at comparable institutions.

    [​IMG]

    I also enjoyed the EcoTarium because of the animals that it exhibited. I think it is very important for zoos and aquariums to foster an appreciation for native wildlife, and it was refreshing to see that the EcoTarium’s collection was focused almost 100% on native species. It seemed like the institution was very deliberate about which species it decided to include in its collection. Most of their animals were native rescues, and it appeared that their collection was not designed specifically to have a lot of major ABC animals or other crowd-pleasers. Even the gift shop was stocked with plushies of native animals, with no toy lions, tigers, or other ABCs. Obviously, I still strongly support displaying species from other continents in North American zoos. And I am also aware that the EcoTarium is not the only facility to, or the best facility which, focus(es) exclusively on native species. But after visiting so many zoological parks with similar African and Asian complexes, the EcoTarium’s native focus was a major breath of fresh air.

    So based on all of this, several days after reflecting on my visit, I started to plan a glowing review. I knew writing would take some time, so I decided to post some photos from my visit to the gallery beforehand. But then, I had a conversation with @Coelacanth18 @Moebelle and @snowleopard which made me reconsider a few things. As mentioned above, the EcoTarium claims that their mountain lion habitat is 18,500 square feet and among the largest in the North America. But in our conversation, I learned that this is completely inaccurate. According to Google Earth, the habitat only measures 18,500 square feet if you include the habitat, guest areas, plaza, holding buildings, and 3 adjacent bird exhibits in the measured area:

    [​IMG]

    Learning that the EcoTarium misrepresented the size of their mountain lion habitat left a really sour taste in my mouth, after I felt so good about the rest of their great exhibits and other features. It is one thing to claim that an exhibit is larger than it really is. But it is another thing to claim it is so much larger than it really is, that it is among the largest of its kind nationwide. Maybe it's not that big of a deal. The habitat is still decent. But the way the EcoTarium misrepresented itself just felt really dishonest.

    So... would I recommend going to the EcoTarium? Yeah, I still would. There are a lot of things to enjoy about the place, and while it is probably best to go with children, it's definitely not necessary. It still left a weird taste in my mouth, though, and I still have some mixed feelings about the way they misrepresent themselves. But if you're in the area, and you have some free time, and you want to have a zoological experience that is really different from your typical zoo, then the EcoTarium would still definitely be a good place to visit.
     
  2. SusScrofa

    SusScrofa Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    25 Feb 2022
    Posts:
    796
    Location:
    Florida
    Great review! Sounds like a really nice local facility.
     
    ZooElephantMan likes this.
  3. TinoPup

    TinoPup Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    Joined:
    17 Jul 2016
    Posts:
    6,553
    Location:
    .
    The cougar exhibit is still one of the largest that I've seen (and the 9th I've seen just this year), with lots of vertical space for climbing on the sides. The main thing I didn't like was the lack of shade (for humans and cats), and no water feature.
     
    ZooElephantMan and StoppableSan like this.
  4. ZooElephantMan

    ZooElephantMan Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    Joined:
    19 Apr 2015
    Posts:
    1,111
    Location:
    Massachusetts
    Do you think the square footage they put could be taking the vertical space into account? Maybe their measurement is actually the surface area of the exhibit or the volume of the exhibit, rather than a measurement of the exhibit’s footprint from a birds eye view like I diagrammed above.
     
  5. TinoPup

    TinoPup Well-Known Member 5+ year member

    Joined:
    17 Jul 2016
    Posts:
    6,553
    Location:
    .
    Possibly! I am really bad at measurements, so I can't give an educated guess on whether the number matches up, but they can easily go around the 3 non-front sides without touching the ground level.
     
    StoppableSan and ZooElephantMan like this.