Join our zoo community

The three zoos of Austin: a comparison

Discussion in 'United States' started by Zygodactyl, 26 Nov 2017.

  1. Zygodactyl

    Zygodactyl Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    3 Jun 2016
    Posts:
    201
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    I previously wrote about the Capital of Texas Zoo. Then shortly after the last time I was here I visited Austin's other two zoos (or zoo-like facilities), so I thought I'd do a comparison of all three.

    Capital of Texas Zoo
    I haven't visited this zoo since I last wrote about it, however I realized that my previous write-up was affected by the psychological bias known as anchoring. The last zoo I visited before this was the Lupa Zoo, another roadside zoo with often inadequate conditions but an impressive collection of animals. The zoo I visited before that was the San Diego Zoo, and so I was basically saying "sure, it's nothing like the San Diego Zoo, but it's not much worse than the Lupa Zoo." But considering that the Lupa Zoo also often has inadequate conditions, "not much worse than the Lupa Zoo" isn't really a justification.

    The Lupa Zoo at least feels a little bit like a proper zoo. The enclosures are often too small, but they're all clean and most animals have clear attempts at enrichment. At the Lupa Zoo every animal has a named sign, a few have explanatory signs, and you can get a map at the entrance. I feel like "menagerie" is a better term for the Capital of Texas Zoo than "zoo." As I said previously, there's no maps and the signage is often missing or wrong and almost always faded. Few animals had significant enrichment in their enclosures, the bats kept flying into the glass, and many of the reptile enclosures were filthy. The sun conure which was kept on its own in a too-small, round cage and the overcrowded coati enclosure still haunt me, and many a visitor has commented on the tiger enclosure.

    That said, The Capital of Texas Zoo does have a fairly impressive variety of animals for its size, which is no doubt because the guy running it is an importer who deals with—among other places—AZA zoos. And honestly, if someone were visiting Austin, I'd probably take them to the Capital of Texas Zoo before I took them to the Austin Zoo. The Capital of Texas Zoo has animals you'll have a hard time seeing elsewhere, the prairie dog exhibit is an experience, feeding animals is fun, and I find that the terribleness of the signage is more amusing than the animal enclosures are sad. But then, I'm also kind of a terrible and selfish person, and I've still decided that I'll never go back there on my own.

    Austin Zoo
    The Austin Zoo is basically the polar opposite of the Capital of Texas Zoo. The maps are good, the signage is AZA-quality, enclosures are huge, and enrichment abounds. I didn't notice any parrots with plucking problems, which is something even AZA zoos have difficulty with and which is all the more impressive considering that their parrots are nearly all large, temperatmental species people gave up. Where the Capitol of Texas Zoo is a breeding mill for many species, the Austin Zoo claims not to breed animals at all. Where the entire staff of the Capital of Texas Zoo seems to be one guy and his teenage daughter, the Austin Zoo has multiple zookeepers on staff at any time, to say nothing of volunteers. Yet with three exceptions—ringtails (which I didn't manage to see), caiques (which I've already seen in pet stores), and tame silver foxes (which I also didn't manage to see)—all of the animals are fairly commonplace.

    The mild yet persistent hypocrisy of the Austin Zoo mildly annoys me. The Austin Zoo got its start as a game ranch, and then at some point the owner apparently decided it was going to become an exotic animal sanctuary. (In this respect it's similar to Big Cat Rescue, though I'm happy to say that the Austin Zoo as an institution isn't as vocally anti-exotic-pet as BCR is, though some of the individual volunteers there are.) And while each animal that it accepted when it was an animal sanctuary has a sign detailing the individual animal's history, the left over game animals have no such sign (though they do have signs identifying them), though to its credit the employees are happy to tell you that that's where those animals come from.

    The tame silver foxes weren't actually a rescue but a confiscation, and I can't tell whether my annoyance at their signs was entirely due to my annoyance at Texas's odious policy when it comes to furbeaers (tigers, chimps, and boomslangs are all legal as pets here while ringtails, fennecs and tame silver foxes are not), or if it actually was a bit sanctimonious, since I didn't get such a feeling from most of their signs. And while they claim not to buy or breed animals (I asked why they weren't AZA-accredited since their facilities and staff both seemed to meet AZA standards, and was told it was because the AZA would require them to breed animals), they have crested porcupines which they purchased as "educational animals" and "accidentally" bred.

    Between the presence of the porcupines and a pair of Transvaal lions they were watching for (IIRC) the Tuscon Zoo, I started to wonder about their choices in the animals they "rescue" and ultimately asked a volunteer and an employee directly how they choose what animals to accept. I couldn't get a clear statement of policy on that matter, since decisions are made by a single employee who wasn't there at the time. However despite being nominally an animal sanctuary, I suspect that "drives visitors" is a bigger concern than "hard to rehome." For example: large macaws and cockatoos are hard to rehome with people who can properly care for them, and parrot rescues tend to have surplus, so it's not surprising that the Austin Zoo has a lot of both. Yet there's probably not a bird in existence which is easier to persuade an experienced parrot owner to take in than a caique, and the Austin Zoo has at least three. And the cynic in me wonders if they don't have parrots with plucking problems because they don't display them or don't accept them.

    The whole operation smells faintly of hypocrisy, and the large but mostly bare enclosures give it a slightly bleak feel, however it's still a beautiful facility to walk around. I spent I don't know how much time watching (and interacting with) the parrots, and I never understood why people liked big cats until I went to the Austin Zoo. Watching a cougar up close and personal there took my breath away. While I'd be more likely to take visitors to the Capital of Texas Zoo, there's no question that I'd be much more willing to go back to the Austin Zoo myself.

    Austin Nature and Science Center
    Of the three zoos/zoolike facilities in Austin, this is both the only one not called a zoo and the one which most fits with my conception of what a "proper" zoo is. Like most AZA zoos, it's a public affair in the middle of a public park. Its mission is clearly educational, and the signage and enclosures are both on par with some AZA zoos I've seen. (They're less generous in terms of space than the Austin Zoo, but the enrichment is generous and most enclosures are planted.) Like the Austin Zoo the staff are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I spent a long time watching the raven, and this was my first time seeing a gray fox (which I also spent a lot of time watching), a greater roadrunner (or either roadrunner, for that matter), and a crested caracara (I think it actually had two or three of them).

    It's small in scope, and focused on native animals, with the raven (an African subspecies) being the only animal not not native to Texas, and one of the few individuals not born here. Being in Zilker Park it's also the most accessible of the zoos if you live in central or east Austin. Plus admission is free. I've always been skeptical of the old saw that "the best things in life are free," but when it comes to Austin's three zoos I'd say that this applies. I'd be more likely to visit again myself or take visitors to the Nature and Science Center than to either of the zoos actually called zoos. I bought a membership to the San Antonio Zoo, however the ANSC is relatively uncrowded and has animals San Antonio doesn't. The only drawback (aside from its small size and scope) is that it's right by Mopac, and the constant sound of cars makes it a somewhat less-than-relaxing experience.
     
    Last edited: 27 Nov 2017
  2. SwampDonkey

    SwampDonkey Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    12 Jan 2017
    Posts:
    631
    Location:
    Tampa, FL. USA
    Nice reviews! I have only been to the ANSC, and agree with what you wrote as to the size, etc. Zilker is a great park, a jewel for Austin, and having a nice, albeit small, facility there is a great addition.
     
  3. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

    Joined:
    1 Dec 2007
    Posts:
    6,892
    Location:
    Abbotsford, B.C., Canada
    I visited all 3 facilities in 2015 (and I've been to 45 or so zoos in Texas) and I appreciate your reviews. Cheers!
     
  4. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    10 Feb 2009
    Posts:
    8,406
    Location:
    Arizona, USA
    Very nicely written. I think Austin Zoo could become an AZA related facility (different category than accredited) and not be required to breed. I believe there is an other rescue center in Texas (maybe in Boyd?) that has this status.
     
  5. Zygodactyl

    Zygodactyl Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    3 Jun 2016
    Posts:
    201
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    I looked it up and indeed you are correct, however the guidelines note that one criteria for being a certified related facility are that exhibits aren't open to the public on a regular basis. Since many of these institutions are open to the public on a regular basis, but only through guided tours, it seems like "open to the public" means "open to the public to wander around."

    The only mention of the "species survival plans" which AZA facilities are required to participate in is under the "benefits of accreditation" section, so it does seem like that's optional, but the Austin Zoo would have to switch to a model where they only offer guided tours to be certified.

    However the reason I mentioned their justification for not being AZA-certified was to scoff at it. Not only do I dislike the "we shouldn't perpetuate animals in captivity" argument to begin with, but they're not doing a good job of controlling the breeding either of the free-range peafowl (they claimed they have a hard time finding the eggs, which I'd believe if that were the only thing that made me raise eyebrows, though the Capital of Texas Zoo which breeds animals commercially doesn't seems to have as many peafowl as the Austin Zoo) or the porcupines which they purchased.

    My impression is that the Austin Zoo is trying to straddle being a zoo and a sanctuary in way that makes them fall short on both counts. If they want to be a sanctuary, I'd expect them to prioritize animals which are hard to properly rehome; I'd expect to see a lot more macaws, iguanas, and alligators, rather than purchased "educational" porcupines and borrowed lions. If they want to be a zoo, they shouldn't present themselves as a sanctuary.

    Like I said, they still seem to do a good job with animal care, it's a very pretty facility (though I'm not sure what they have against planted enclosures) and I really enjoyed talking with the keepers (one of whom spent about half an hour talking with me, which was awesome) but I went away with a slightly bad taste in my mouth because of the large number of ways in which it seemed mildly hypocritical.
     
  6. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    10 Feb 2009
    Posts:
    8,406
    Location:
    Arizona, USA
    Agree with much of what you say, just want to give a heads up on the "loaned" lion situation (since they come from my hometown zoo). The lions, which were born at an AZA facility here in Tucson, have a medical condition that requires lifelong treatments. They were offered to other AZA facilities first (which is standard policy) but no one wanted them. Since our zoo exhibit does not have room for the two male cubs and their parents (we did keep the female cub), we had to find a home for them outside AZA. Austin Zoo agreed to take them and care for their medical needs. So while they may be technically "on loan" this is just the term AZA facilities force them to use. They belong to Austin Zoo for all intents and purposes and could be considered a rescue since no mainstream zoo wanted them.
     
    Zygodactyl likes this.
  7. Zygodactyl

    Zygodactyl Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    3 Jun 2016
    Posts:
    201
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    Interesting, thanks.

    On another note, today I discovered Batto's thread on his zoo and the article "How to Exhibit a Bullfrog."

    None of the Austin Zoos have an exhibit like the one described, but I'm not sure any zoo I've been to actually meets that ideal. (The closest is probably the Miami Zoo, which has a number of innovative exhibits in the rainforest trails area, but most of the exhibits even there are divorced from any sort of context.) However the Nature and Science Center comes closest, since they have species mostly isolated, but they display most of them in exhibits designed to mimic their natural environment.

    The surprising thing is that while the Austin Zoo has much better exhibits on average, the Capital of Texas Zoo has three exhibits which seem to fit with the bullfrog model better than anything at the Austin Zoo. The first of these is the prairie dog exhibit, which basically has free-ranging prairie dogs in habitat close to their natural habitat. Looking at the camel I kept thinking "this exhibit would be perfect if that paddock held bison," but it's still pretty good. The second is the quaker parakeets, where he has a giant flock which you get to watch interact with each other. I suspect that both of these are complete accidents based on his breeding quaker parakeets (especially since he has that solitary sun conure in a too-small cage) and having trouble keeping the prairie dogs in, but they're there.

    The third example I'm certain is intentional, but since the exhibit still seems overcrowded I'm not sure if it's better than the Austin Zoo: I'm thinking of the coatis. He keeps the females and young together in order to breed them, which is both true to their natural habits and something I've never seen at another zoo. The most common thing I've seen for coatis is an exhibit with a pair of them (which is simply wrong), or a single individual (which is true only for adult males). In keeping all the females and their offspring together, he's truer to their habits than many AZA zoos, and as a result the young are constantly in motion, which is fascinating to watch.
     
    Arizona Docent likes this.
  8. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member Premium Member

    Joined:
    28 May 2009
    Posts:
    1,451
    Location:
    Newport Beach, CA, USA
    Thank you for this interesting comparison and contrast, I did not visit any of these facilities during my single visit to Austin in 2010 so it is intriguing.
     
  9. Zygodactyl

    Zygodactyl Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    3 Jun 2016
    Posts:
    201
    Location:
    Austin, TX
    @geomorph: Like I said, the only one really worth seeing is the Austin Nature and Science Center, maybe the CoT Zoo if you really want to see its rarities, but you've been to enough zoos that I've probably seen all of them except the falanoka. Fortunately, if you ever get to Austin again, the Nature and Science Center is practically downtown. (It's right across the river from downtown; on a nice day you could walk.)

    Speaking of the Austin Nature and Science Center: I visited it again and want to make a few updates.

    First, I'm told that the raven is indeed a common raven (Corvus corax) and this particular bird is assumed to have been born in Texas. There's also now a sign which says that it was an illegal pet which was found. Before I was told it was an African raven, which I asked about after the sign suggested it was a legal pet. It didn't occur to me to ask whether this might be a completely different raven, which is possible, but the more likely answer is that someone's story is incorrect.

    Second, one of the caracaras has unfortunately died. There's now a pair of Swainson's Hawks in with the remaining one; I didn't think to ask whether they were there at my last visit.

    Third, the cardinals are still there but now off-exhibit while they try to find a better permanent exhibit. The enclosure where they were is unused and from what the keeper I talked to said it sounds like it will probably stay unused. It's too small for birds and too high for people to get a good look at reptiles.

    Fourth, there was a sign saying that the racoon was off-exhibit, now that sign is gone. I didn't think to ask whether it's died, moved, or been taken permanently off-exhibit, or what. I'll try to remember to ask when I go there next time, since neither of the zoos in Austin called "zoos" nor the San Antonio Zoo have a racoon.

    Fifth, I've been to the San Antonio Zoo twice and failed to see their roadrunner both times. I think it must like hiding. The poor, brain-damaged roadrunner at the ANSC is quite easy to see (she's sad but also adorable), so if you ever want to see a roadrunner I'd strongly suggest the ANSC.
     
  10. AbileneBoy

    AbileneBoy Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    7 Aug 2019
    Posts:
    67
    Location:
    TX
    in addition to the fanaloka, Capital of Texas now also has eastern falanouc and Nubian wild ass, which are pretty rare in American zoos. I'm going to give a breakdwodn of what is on exhibit currently over on the Caital of TX news forum in a minute
     
  11. Yi Qi

    Yi Qi Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    24 Feb 2018
    Posts:
    1,457
    Location:
    Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
  12. AbileneBoy

    AbileneBoy Well-Known Member

    Joined:
    7 Aug 2019
    Posts:
    67
    Location:
    TX
    ok false alarm. another user pointed out the falanouc sign is an old sign from when fanaloka was initially misidentified!