I woke early this morning and got my Girls Who Code work out of the way so I could spend the day with Jennie, who woke up somewhat later. Together we made a yummy breakfast out of my leftover Heirloom Cherry Tomato Mix, some sausage, leftover rice and scrambled eggs. We know how to live.
We walked down to the local pharmacy to get some sunscreen (I am close to running out), and, having a few minutes before the bus came, stopped and got some apples at Cermak Produce. Then we hopped aboard a bus and headed to the zoo.
Even though I’d been there twice before, it was different today. On previous occasions, I had gone on weekends and in beautiful weather, and while not overly crowded, the zoo was very busy both times. Today though, was a weekday, and the crowd was about fifteen or twenty percent of what it was on my previous trips. This, I think, made a marked difference in the behavior of the animals themselves.
Many, many of the animals were visible and active; hunting around for food, swinging from branches, climbing trees, peeing (we saw a lowland gorilla and a rhino pee) and mating. [Well, almost. I think there was a thwarted attempt by the red footed tortoise to get lucky, but he had to settle for cuddling. I’m willing to be they can feel that through their shells. Never thought about that before, did you?] In other words, they were doing what animals do. And it was good to see.
A while back, I was asked what a compassionate scientist thinks of zoos. I didn’t have a chance to answer then, but if I were to guess, I think they’d be OK with them as a necessary evil, but the word evil is too strong. Perhaps they might consider them a disagreeable necessity. Today’s zoos are not the same zoos of even the not-too-distant past. The focus today is less on simple entertainment and more on education, conservation and research. There is a very good article on this here.
Some examples come to mind from today’s trip. One of our first stops was to the gorilla exhibit. The gorillas had their freedom to be inside or out today, and appeared to be relaxed and curious. Their enclosures were full of different kinds of stimulating materials. We saw a gorilla climb into a tree to eat some greens, and a gorilla in another enclosure take some wood wool and make himself a pillow to lay down on. That was just before an older gorilla in the same enclosure (the Bachelor Pad), was due for his enrichment.
Although we didn’t stay for the full event, that gorilla was using a touchscreen computer to help in the zoo’s research. He first had to order red, yellow and blue circles into the right order. This was to teach him the rules of how the computer worked. Then he got to sort out his food preference: raisin or carrot first. There was a researcher interacting with him through the computer, and another keeper explaining what was going on. We left because we were too far back to see. Still, education, research and conservation (lowland gorillas are an endangered species and the zoo has an active captive breeding program: Bella turned 1 in February) were evident.
Side note: we quietly kidded that perhaps the gorilla had mad computer skillz his keepers didn’t know about, and that he was secretly ordering enrichment for his pals. “Hey, who ordered this giant ball on the end of the firehose?” “Must be those folks in research”. Meanwhile the folks in research are blaming the animal nutrition people, etc. The gorilla is probably surfing for gorilla porn, too. “Hey, who downloaded all these national Geographic videos?”
We stopped by the seal exhibit a little later, and watched the demonstration there. Gone are the days when these are done for pure entertainment. Now, the stated (at the beginning of the program) focus is training the animals to voluntarily participate in their own health care. The seal jumped up on the shore, trundled over to a large bucket, and put his head in. For all intents and purposes (intense sand porpoises?) it looked like he was bobbing for apples. Unfair, I think, because he can hold his breath for so long. Then they explained that he wasn’t actually bobbing for apples, he was rinsing his head in a saline solution which helps prevent infections on the head, ears, and eyes. I’d rather the seal did it himself, rather than having person holding his head under.
Although some of the animal enclosures are still dated (I’m thinking about the tigers here – the large cat house dates back over 100 years), most of the animals seemed to have plenty of room and were active while we were there.
To me, the hallmark of a great zoo is when the animals are active and healthy looking. This is certainly true a the Bronx Zoo (all the WCS zoos [i.e. the five in NYC], really) and at the Cincinnati Zoo. Most other zoos have it to some degree, but not to the extent that these zoos (and I’d include Lincoln Park Zoo in that list now) do. I think most major zoos (I am excepting pettting zoos and quasi-amature efforts, here) are striving for this approach these days.
In closing, I’d like to point out how similar what zookeepers are doing is to what many high school teachers are trying to do: get their subjects to voluntarily do things they don’t necessarily want to do and are not yet ready to understand the meaning of, both for the benefit of the subject. Brothers and sisters in arms, we are.