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March, 2007

My Favorite Zoo Animals

by Valerie

I'm a zoo junkie. I love to go to zoos and do so at every opportunity. A typical visit to a large zoological park occupies me all day, and even small zoos usually command at least 3 hours of my time. I often make return trips to the same places whenever possible, and like to go at any time of the year. Some zoos are better than others, mostly from the standpoint of how well they provide for their animals. Some are more viewer friendly, too. I don't see the point in having animals that are kept in ugly little cages where they are barely visible. It is also not enjoyable to see animals that are unhappy. While I like the idea of zoos in general, I would be very pleased to never see another great ape, big cat, elephant, dolphin, or bear kept confined. These animals have complex needs and they can rarely be accommodated in captivity. In spite of the shortcomings inherent in keeping animals in an unnatural environment, it is nice that the majority of zoos are making conscientious efforts to upgrade their habitats whenever possible, and many kinds of animals can be kept in appropriate surroundings that meet both their needs and those of the viewing public.

One of the joys of visiting any zoo is the variety. Even excluding those mammals that need more stimulation than these establishments can offer, there are still plenty of different species that do well in zoos and provide people with a glimpse of wildlife that they would otherwise never get to see. From mammals down to invertebrates, there are enough different kinds of creatures that no two zoos have the same collection. Add to that the fact that animals tend to move around and do different things, and there are always lots of interesting things to see at any zoo. I must admit it is quite difficult to narrow my list of favorites down to a small number, and the entries tend to change depending on what I've most recently seen.

While I like watching just about any of the inhabitants at a zoo, what follows is an annotated list of my current top ten favorite species (links to photos will open in a new window):

Number ten: Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria)

This enormous member of the dove/pigeon family is rather common in zoos. There are actually three species of crowned pigeon, all of which come from New Guinea. While it's not the only pigeon to have a feather crest on its head, it certainly has the most spectacular. The gray-blue plumage always looks soft and smooth, and the bright red eyes add a nice accent. In open aviaries, these birds tend to calmly walk around and become very casual about people, so they are easy to study up close.

Number nine: Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica)

There are all manner of interesting reptiles, so it is not easy to single out one. However, this large, stout viper has some of the most beautiful markings of any snake. It often rests right in the front of its exhibit habitat, making it easy to see once it is discerned from its cryptic camouflage among leaves, and it moves very little because it is not only slow but nocturnal as well.

Number eight: Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox)

Top predator of Madagascar (not counting humans), the fossa is a large member of the mongoose family. Not all that common in zoos, it tends to be reasonably active without acting psychotically frantic. It is an attractive animal with a very long tail and strangely proportioned face. For those unfamiliar with this species, it seems a cross between a jaguarundi, otter, mongoose, and ferret.

Number seven: Klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus)

One of the smaller antelopes kept in zoos, the dainty klipspringer looks almost toy-like. Its dense coat of fur is always sleek and even, and there is nothing quite like its tiny hooves, with their rubbery tips that make it look like it is standing on tiptoe. They are inhabitants of rocky outcrops, so zoos must duplicate that environment to make them feel comfortable.

Number six: Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)

Of all the large ungulates seen in zoos, giraffes are one of the most attractive and definitely the most unique. Their oddly graceful proportions are sometimes overlooked because of their sheer size. While they require a large habitat, they are themselves so big that one doesn't need to be close to enjoy them. Giraffes' spots come in several patterns, and represent regional variations, but the distinctive coat patterns can be lost as all giraffes belong to the same species and interbreed.

Number five: Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)

One of the largest of all flying birds, it is understandable why the Kori bustard prefers to walk. Males are bigger than females and, although they can fly short distances, it takes a lot of effort for them to get airborne. In zoos, these birds tend to be curious and engaging; they will come right up to people and look them in the eye. This affords a good chance to see their remarkable plumage, which has all manner of fine stripes and lines.

Number four: Flamingo (Phoenicopterus sp.)

Two of the five species of flamingos (the greater and lesser) are commonly seen in zoos, and they range from light pink to deep red. Color is dependent on food, as the carotene responsible for it must be ingested on a regular basis. Gregarious and active, these birds display well in sizeable flocks, and their noisy antics make them interesting to watch for long periods. They don't even need to have their wings clipped in open enclosures, as they cannot get airborne without a long runway. Just a few overhanging trees or obstacles on the ground will keep them from even attempting flight. While the colorful adults are beautiful, I find the gray immature birds to be equally compelling.

Number three: Peafowl (Pavo sp.)

The two species of peafowl (green and common) are perhaps the most gemlike of all birds. Other members of the same family also sport remarkable plumage, such as turkeys and pheasants, but the peacocks have developed this to an extreme. They easily adjust to captivity and go about their business of trying to impress the peahens, much to the delight of visitors. I've been rather disappointed lately to find that fewer of these birds are being displayed in zoos.

Number two: Naked Mole Rat (Hetercephalus glaber)

Pretty much at the opposite end of the attractiveness spectrum from most of my favorite animals, the naked mole rats are really pretty ugly, at least by our standards. They are, however, very fascinating animals, and zoos have come up with admirable habitat exhibits that allow for visitors to glimpse the strange underground activities of these incredible creatures. In very un-rodent-like fashion, the naked mole rats have a social structure more like termites. There is a "queen" who has the babies, while other members of the group attend to her, gather food, maintain their tunnels, and care for the young. They sleep in tightly packed masses and are constantly making contact with each other, as they are blind.

Number one: Meerkat (Suricata suricatta)

An easy choice for my top animal at the zoo is the meerkat. These lively little carnivores are related to mongooses and are highly social. They not only look charming, but they are extremely active most of the time. On cold mornings they seek out warm patches of sun. When aircraft fly over, they all run and hide. When their perceived dangers pass, they go into a frenzy of reassuring behaviors. The rest of the time they manage to keep busy doing everything from grooming to digging. At least one acts as a lookout all the time and they tend to observe every person in a crowd, react to every strange noise, and generally appear busier than the proverbial bee. While not requiring a lot of space because of their small size, they seem most comfortable in large groups, much like prairie dogs.

I'm sure that my preferences of animals will not correspond to most other peoples', as everyone has their own personal favorites. At any given time during a zoo visit, I truly enjoy whatever animal I am watching at the moment, so the list could constantly change depending on circumstances. That's all part of the fun.

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