Several years ago, my employer made a significant financial contribution to the Minnesota Zoo to help fund an exhibit – and all employees were encouraged to go to the location and check out the new space. At the time, I thought visiting the zoo sounded like a great idea; but then life got busy, and I never made my way there. I simply never made the trek to the zoo a priority. So when I created my 101 list, I added #8 to ensure that I would visit the zoo within the next 1001 days.
However. From the time I initially made my 101 list to now, several things in my life have changed. One personal change that occurred last year that is relevant to this discussion is that I now adhere to a vegan diet and lifestyle. In other words, I don’t consume animal products as part of my daily food intake, and I do my best to avoid purchasing items that have involved any sort of animal harm or exploitation. I know I do not live anywhere near a 100% “cruelty-free” existence (I’m semi confident that some of my purchases [vitamins, medications, clothing, etc.] have involved some element of animal harm), but I do my best to avoid engaging in practices or supporting companies/products that hurt animals for human gain.
So when I recently reviewed the few not-yet-completed items on my original 101 list, I paused when I arrived at #8. I’m just not sure how I feel about zoos these days. On one hand, ethical zoos do provide some benefits for animals: these institutions raise both awareness and funds for animal-related issues, they help ensure continued survival of animals facing extinction, and they assist in cultivating positive curiosity about (and respectful appreciation for) all sorts of animals in some children (and even some adults). After all, how many environmental advocates, veterinarians, park rangers, ecologists, etc. entered their profession because of a positive childhood experience at a zoo? I’m guessing a good many.
And yet, I can’t “get over” the fact that to me, a zoo feels like a large animal prison. No matter how well the animals are treated, they still aren’t free to live in the wild like their peers, to be independent and autonomous creatures. But at the same time, the exact same ‘argument’ can be made about household pets. The two puppies my sweetie and I have at home probably have less space to roam than most of the animals housed in a zoo – so am I a total hypocrite for keeping pets? I don’t feel like I am, but…? I do know our dogs would have died long ago if they were required to fend for themselves in the wild, and that they have a much more comfortable life than their feral peers … and I suspect this same line of reasoning can be applied to zoo animals, too. So maybe zoos aren’t harmful to animals?
Man. When I plunked down item #8 on my list, I had little idea I would be addressing such a contentious topic! Three years ago, a trip to the zoo seemed like a lighthearted, enjoyable way to spend a day. Now, though, things feel different. I know there is no single ‘right’ answer to any of the questions I have posed in these few paragraphs; I guess the only way to resolve these issues for myself is to go to the zoo, and see how I feel during and after the experience. So… off I go.
I arrived at the zoo a few minutes after 9 am on a gloriously beautiful Saturday morning. After finding a space to park (which was a very easy task; the zoo provides a sizable lot in front of their entrance), I made my way to the main entrance:
Once I got to the ticket counter, I told the college student staffing the space that I would like one adult ticket, please. He asked me, “Did you park in the lot out front?” I answered yes, and he replied, “Okay, so one adult ticket plus parking… $25 please.” Um, what? Twenty-five dollars for one person to visit the zoo?! Ouch. That seemed like an awfully high price to pay for a few hours of activity. I was also saddened when I realized that a mindless night out at the movies is cheaper than a day of education. But, I set those thoughts aside, handed over my credit card, and walked through the turnstile into the main lobby of the zoo. Still, after that steep entrance fee, I’m expecting this place to be spectacular…
The very first thing I noticed was the semi-pungent smell of animals. Uh oh… am I going to be inhaling nastiness all day? I got a little anxious. However, after a few minutes in the zoo, the smell dissipated, and I felt a lot more comfortable for the bulk of the visit. (Of course there were a few places in the zoo that were more odiferous than others, but for the most part foul animal smells were minimal.)
After taking just twenty steps or so, I passed by an exhibit: monkeys! Perfect greeters to the zoo. After taking another twenty steps, I saw that the monkeys were in an open-air space; the glass I had been behind was for the benefit of humans (so that the humans could eat in restaurants that were positioned on the opposite side of the glass); the monkeys were viewable from a skybridge-type structure opposite the glass window. I walked through an exit to get outside, and watched the monkeys with only air and space separating us:
The monkeys were fascinating to watch. There were some juveniles who were running around like crazy chasing one another all over the place, some adolescents who were intent on doing ‘work’ around the space, and some adults who were calm and stately. Yet no matter their age, each of the monkeys were incredibly expressive.
I could have hung out with all of these guys for an hour. Alas, I had other animals to visit…
As I continued following the main zoo path, I passed by a tank of penguins – where I saw quite an unexpected sight:
Quizzically, after exiting the penguin area, I found myself entering a space called the “Tropics Trail”:
The tropics area of the zoo was sizable; I saw a whole host of interesting animals – and they were quite active, too!
The zoo provided lots of nooks and crannies designed specifically for small kids to walk (or run) through, and allowed the children to get a unique perspective on the animals. For example, a small cutout was made near the above fish tank, so that kids could see these swimmers from the bottom-up as well as at traditional standing eye level. Those kid-friendly spaces were placed throughout the entire zoo – and each one of them was really cool. (I’m not ashamed to state that I maneuvered into nearly all of them.) :)
Continuing with the tropical tour:
As I turned around a bend in the trail, I came to a sudden halt when I saw this:
A bird out in the open, mingling with zoo visitors. What the…?
Turns out that the bird aviary is an open-air space where the birds are free to go wherever the heck they want. And since they are pretty familiar with people, one of them was more than willing to let me come close. Really close:
How is it possible to let dozens of birds fly around in the open? What keeps them 1) in the zoo, and 2) not being eaten by the other wild animals in the tropics area? Here’s the ‘secret':
I say good bye to the birds, and walked through the bamboo curtain to finish up the Tropics Trail. One of the last animals I saw in this section of the zoo was a terrific turtle:
Leaving this area of the zoo, I reflected on all of the information displayed for each animal. Signs explaining each creature’s behaviors, food choices, friends and foes, and any unique qualities the animal possesses educated kids and adults alike. But equally importantly, the zoo also posted ample signage about the importance of conservation and protection – and clearly stated the tragic results of failing to care for vulnerable beings:
After leaving the Tropics Trail (which is an enclosed area of the zoo), I decided to use the restroom before I ventured outside. Now usually, I keep details about my bodily functions private (with one notable exception) – but in this particular bathroom I saw a sight that struck me as funny and that served as a good reminder:
Once outside, the next animal area I approached was the Northern Trail – where I encountered animals I’m more used to seeing (in my previous visits to ‘standard’ zoos):
As I exited the bear cave, I saw an empty stage:
Though I could reasonably guess what “Close Encounters” were, I did a tiny bit of research anyway, and learned, that yes, “Close Encounters provide guests with one-on-one opportunities to interact with zookeepers, animal training demonstrations, and a chance to observe and touch fascinating critters… Close Encounters occur every day, throughout the day, in all areas of the zoo.” Obviously a presentation wasn’t occurring at this particular moment – but I kept an eye open for a similar experience in a different part of the zoo.
After walking a few more feet, I approached a seemingly random part of the zoo:
I mean, why Russia?
Then again, why not?
If the zoo focused on the tropics (read: South America and Africa), the “Northern Trail” (i.e., North American and European animals), and penguins (hello Antarctica), I guess the only areas of the world not covered are Australia and Asia. And since the map in the above image includes the coast of China and Japan, I guess this is an attempt to include Asia into the global mix…?
Curious about what animals might be classified as “Russian” (aka Asian), I wandered into the Grizzly Coast space:
One group of animals in the Russian Coast space that I didn’t get a chance to photograph were the sea otters – because they were totally showing off for all of the patrons walking past them! These zippy little animals followed people as they walked past their tank, performed summersaults for anyone who lingered, and dove underwater to get down to eye level with smaller kids. These buggers were complete clowns. I laughed at their antics, and delighted at the way the kids responded to positively to them. Who doesn’t like a comedian, after all?
[If you want to see a professional photo of the sea otters, you can find it on the zoo's website (along with much clearer and closer photos of all the animals the zoo houses, as well as various facts about each animal). The zoo people have better access to the animals than I do, and their images reflect this fact.] :)
Back on the Northern Trail, I continued to encounter a variety of animals:
Just before I left the camels, I looked over to the right of them – and saw this scene:
What a stunningly gorgeous fall day. Mmmm….
Continuing on with my tour of the zoo, I arrived at the “Family Farm” area. This section of the zoo is only open seasonally (May-Oct) – so I was really glad I came in time to experience it!
The entire zoo is designed primarily for children (understandably); still, I loved seeing this quote near the start of the Family Farm path:
A paved trail about a tenth of a mile long led to the farm space. To help prevent little legs get annoyed before they arrived at the farm, fun signs were placed along the path:
But if the kids (or their adult companions) were simply too tired to walk any more, a tractor ride was another available option:
After a 5-minute walk, I arrived at the farm:
The first animal I saw at the farm was a horse. But apparently this is no ordinary horse:
As I continued walking toward the heart of the farm, I learned that many babies had been born just weeks before. So not only did I get to see adult animals, but I got to see cutie babes, too! Like this curious cow:
Across from the cow area was a big pen and barn space for goats. And it was interactive!
After the goats came the pigs – and baby piglets!
One baby piglet got startled by an adult pig that the babe didn’t see – and the little guy let out a high-pitched fearful squeal. But then junior got his wits about him, and went over to senior to investigate:
But as cute as the babies are, and as kindly as they are treated, it’s important to remember that they do grow up – and once they become “less cute”, people don’t always treat them well:
And my stomach clenched when I saw this display:
I was partially appalled at seeing the above display IN THE PIG BARN. It’s like showcasing a human corpse in a nursing home. And yet, at the same time I was a little glad that the zoo decided to put this display in front of kids – maybe (hopefully) the children will ask some hard questions of their parents, and both parties will realize the tough facts behind the products they consume (and maybe now, won’t consume any longer? I can only hope…).
Oh, P.S. – the pig in the above photo should not be smiling!
Okay, stepping down from soap box, and moving on…
Just before leaving the farm, I saw a flock of baby chicks feeding. As I approached their cage, I heard them utter the gentlest little “cheep, cheep, cheep” sounds. Melt my heart.
By this time it was just after 11 am, so I started making my way back to the main entrance of the zoo. When I returned to the primary path, I saw this fun water feature:
And as luck would have it, on my return pass of the Close Encounters space, I saw a show just wrapping up!
When I finally returned to the main entrance of the zoo (a good 20-minute walk from the family farm area), I had one exhibit left to explore: the Discovery Bay Marine Education Center.
Photographing moving animals is a challenge for me; snapping good images of moving animals in water is even more difficult. So I did my best to try and capture a few semi-decent pictures to help convey a sense of this part of the zoo; try to not judge too harshly. :)
All of the tanks I walked past in the marine center were both colorful and well lit – so I was surprised when I walked past this dark display:
Upon closer examination, I saw that there was a reason for this dark, seemingly forgotten, tank:
When I pressed the button, the tank lit up – and I was able to see ALL of the animals inside it:
Once again, I felt sad – but also appreciative. One thing this zoo does is share a variety of facts with the patrons – even facts that people may not want to learn.
Still, I didn’t want to leave my zoo experience with a cloud over my head; so I spent my last few minutes watching a moving body of water enter a bay, then recede. Waves came, then went. Arrived, then departed. In, out. Yin, yang.
Feeling a bit more peaceful, I walked towards the zoo’s exit – which is the same location as the entrance. So the last creatures I saw on my way out were those silly monkeys – who were still as active in the early afternoon as they had been in the morning:
With my zoo adventure officially complete, I reflected on what I thought of the total experience. Here are my final thoughts – as well as my tips and recommendations for anyone who might choose to visit the zoo for the first time. In no particular order:
- It took me just over 3 hours (and 7500 steps) to walk the entire zoo, including the Family Farm (which is only open seasonally).
- Arrive right when the zoo opens. The animals are most active then, and the crowds are at their lightest.
- Start out by visiting Russia’s Grizzly Coast, then make your way to the Family Farm. After the farm, loop back to the entrance area. Once back at the entrance, take a break, use the restrooms, get a drink/snack, etc. Then visit the enclosed exhibits: Tropics Trail, Minnesota Trail, Penguins of the American Coast, and Discovery Bay Marine Center.
- Don’t bypass the family farm – it’s definitely the most interactive part of the zoo, and will likely be a favorite section for kids (and adults who are kids at heart). :)
- Allow a good 3-4 hours for the total visit (and even more time if anyone in your party is “pokey” [read: very old, very young, or very curious]).
- Wear comfortable walking shoes and sunglasses (and a hat if you are very sensitive to sunshine). Bring a bottle of water (or other beverage of your choosing) to sip on as you walk, and bring your own snacks/lunch (the zoo’s food is quite junky, and absolutely over priced). If you are a germaphobe, consider bringing hand sanitizer or wet wipes (or both).
- Take advantage of the free lockers in the food court area. They are a great place to stash snacks, lunches, unneeded jackets/hats, etc.
- While the zoo is technically open year-round, I would advise visiting from late spring (or early summer, depending on the year) to late fall.
- The zoo planners did a great job of including lots of shade along the main outdoor walking path; there were very few places that were exposed to full sun for an extended stretch (which is very important on a warm/hot day).
- I appreciate that the zoo planners tried to make as many exhibits as open air and “natural” as possible.
- I still think the admission cost is high. I’d be willing to pay $12-15 for an adult – but honestly, even $15 feels like a stretch. And I think charging for parking at all is an outright scam. So there you go.
As I started to drive out of the zoo’s parking lot, I passed by this car:
I couldn’t have planned that ending any better if I tried.