A few weeks ago I went with my sister Luli and her friend Margaret to the North Carolina Zoo in Ashboro. It was the best day I have ever spent at a zoo. Certainly the weather helped: blue sky, a steady breeze, high 70's. But it was the zoo itself that impressed me.
The North Carolina Zoo has the advantage of space and a temperate climate - almost 1400 acres in the rural Piedmont, an hour and fifteen minutes from Chapel Hill. It was built in the mid-70's as the first natural habitat zoo in the U.S. designed by Dwight Holland, a painter and designer who directed the zoo for many years. In the 80's it was expanded using a master plan by Jon Coe, a landscape architect who specializes in zoos.
The zoo has two sections, North America and Africa, about a mile and a half apart as the snake slithers. We began with the cypress swamp in North America, and the contrast with other zoos was immediately apparent. The first exhibit we passed was various carnivorous plants - sundew, pitcher plants, Venus fly traps. The signs had lots of information, but not so much as to be daunting, and the ranger there answered all our questions. I loved learning a bit about the animals’ environments as well as the animals.
About 1100 animals of more than 200 species live in habitats designed to mimic their natural environment and give them as much space as possible. All the habitats are behind glass; the larger ones with ample seating - benches and risers - to let us wait for the animals to appear. Walking from one exhibit to the next we were usually in the shade, and many paths were landscaped to feel like woodland trail. The most impressive habitats were the western prairie, with elk and bison, the chimpanzee habitat, and the 37-acre African savannah, with elephants, rhinos, ostriches, antelope and gazelles.
From a visitor’s point of view, the disadvantage of large habitats is that you may not see some of the animals up close and personal, or indeed not see some of the animals at all. We arrived at the prairie and climbed up to the top step of concrete risers. A vast expanse of waving grass and wildflowers was all we could see until Luli, our best spotter, saw what might be an elk’s head in the distance above the grass. A twitching ear confirmed it. A little later we realized that what looked like some sticks next to her were velvet-covered antlers. We waited, enjoying the fresh air and wild flowers.
Human families came by, the children clambered up the steps, looked around, and moved on. Then the female elk stood up from the clump of grass and ambled toward us along the perimeter of the prairie, walking the length of the glass and disappearing into the brush at the far end. The male followed her. He was molting and his shaggy winter coat was in tatters. Finally, a calf came along - we had had no idea it was there. We probably sat fifteen minutes watching for elk, and then we moved on, past an extensive poster display about the loss of the great prairies, and modern day attempts to use the land for agriculture while preserving what native grasslands remain. We stopped at another viewing point, and under a distant clump of trees saw a dark mound that was the back of a sleeping bison.
We had come on a Monday, to avoid crowds of children - I thought field trips were usually on Fridays. But the first thing we saw when we arrived were about seventy-five children from the Liberty Preschool, and we saw many school groups throughout the day, as well as parents and grandparents with preschool children and babies. Despite, or perhaps because of the long walks between exhibits, and waiting sometimes in vain for a glimpse of the animals, the children and hence the parents were calmer and better behaved than I have ever seen at a zoo.
Certainly the children acted like children - growling at the cougars, yelling “Wake up!” at the alligators - but they were far happier and less whiny than I usually see at zoos. They had lots of room to run, and weren’t tugging at their parents to move from one animal to the next. Spotting the animals soon became a game for them, far more interesting than watching a couple of bears or lions pace in a small cage.
We came to the endangered red wolves. Their habitat was shady - brown ground covered with dry leaves, a shelter in the distance, a pond up by the glass. We couldn’t see any wolves. A father asked his family - “How many frogs can you find?” Together we found eight huge bullfrogs in the murky pond. Then a little boy spotted two ears behind a log, and patiently instructed me - “over there, see, just past the big tree”- how to find the wolf. Soon someone found a small red wolf over by the fence and we watched him for awhile.
The Sonoran desert, in a huge glass enclosure, was as hot as it sounds. But it was fun looking for the critters - birds, lizards, snakes - and the designer had thoughtfully provided grates in the path that blew cool air up at us.
We had arrived at the zoo at 9:30. We were desperate for coffee and ready for lunch by the time we finished the North American section. We bought bad pre-sweetened cappucino and sat in the shade at the Junction Plaza, where they have the special attractions - animatronic dinosaurs, the dino theater, a carousel - and a tram to take you between the two sections. There was a restaurant, but Luli had prepared a picnic lunch - roasted vegetables, bread and cheese, grapes and strawberries. When we were through, we took the tram to “Africa.”
We walked away from the tram, rounded a curve and suddenly saw three giraffes eating from tree tops and two zebras grazing the grass. One family was more absorbed by the turtles swimming in the pond. At the chimpanzee exhibit we watched from a distance as a toddler chimp climbed repeatedly onto a nursing mother’s head. Each time she gently lifted him off and set him on the ground. Eventually another grown chimp, a male I think, came out of the woods and enticed the toddler away with a game of stick throwing.
At the lemur island, there were a couple of red-ruffed lemurs and six ring-tailed lemurs. According to various internet sources, ring-tails hang out on the ground while red-ruffed are arboreal. Lemurs have not been informed of this. The two red-ruffed lemurs had the good sense to race around on the ground, but all the ring-tails were up in a most astonishingly spindly tree, mere twigs. They leapt and climbed from limb to limb.
I was pretty tired by the time we got to the savannah. We sat on benches on the large overlook. We saw one huge elephant far in the distance, and a couple of white rhinos, a kudu, a water buck and a Thomson’s gazelle a little closer. Canada geese were everywhere, voluntary residents.
When we all agreed we were through zoo-ing, Margaret looked at her watch. It was ten minutes to five, and the zoo closed at five! We had happily stayed almost eight hours, way longer than I usually stay anywhere, but now we had visions of spending the night in the African savannah. We went down to the service road and flagged down a truck. The kind driver radio-ed a ranger in a golf cart, who came to pick us up and take us back to the tram to North America, where we had parked. We saw many families walking, but he gave us a ride because we are old. White hair is such an advantage!
There are all sorts of policy and ethical questions in regard to zoos, of course. click How do we justify penning up animals for our edification, even with the most enlightened approach to zoo design? Why is the state of North Carolina supporting a zoo that very few of its citizens can get to or afford to visit? I can just imagine the legislature that passed that appropriation - I wonder who was the legislator from Ashboro!
I know (sort of) the counter-arguments: breeding programs, preserving endangered species, fostering respect for wildlife; jobs, tourism, economic development. Jon Coe, who has generously shared information since I found him on the internet, says, "Regarding the morality of zoos, we may fault the original animal collectors, but I see today's zoo animals as "refugees from the human war of conquest over nature." Most zoo animals (at least mammals) were born in zoos and couldn't survive release back into the 'wild' even if any suitable areas could be found which aren't already at full carrying capacity. I believe when zoos can deliver the kind of experience you and your friends had and the quality of animal welfare NCZ provides it's animals, then they are justified. But there certainly are zoos and especially some private collections I cannot justify."
I've told you about my favorite parts of the zoo. Some of the habitats struck me as small, and I don't know about caging gators and other reptiles that aren't endangered. I can’t sort it all out, and I don’t believe I have to have a carefully-reasoned moral stand on every subject. Sometimes I just seek my pleasures in the world as it is. If you like visiting zoos, the North Carolina Zoo is worth the trip.
Note: In research for this post, I became totally absorbed in Jon Coe's website, where you learn a lot about zoos, and also can see his poetry and sketches from the field (ie wild areas few of us will ever visit).click
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