Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pittsburgh Zoo

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium are my fourth foray into the world of Zoos. I visited on Tuesday, June 21st in the morning. It was very warm and muggy.

The zoo is located on the northern side of the city in an area known as Highland Park. It is a hiking zoo, as it is built on a hill. The layout is easy to navigate, the animals are fairly spread out with some generous sections of path to walk between viewing areas.

The zoo is among the oldest in the United States, opening in 1898, and it is one of only 6 large parks that combine a zoo with an aquarium. It claims to exhibit 4,000 animals, and honestly on what planet? Are they counting the ticks on the Springbok and the fleas on the African Painted Dogs?

In all fairness, these claims are not endemic to Pittsburgh's zoo. The Maryland Zoo @ Baltimore claims "over 2,000" and the Philadelphia Zoo "more than 1,300" animals. Both of which are also feel exaggerated. As concerns, Pittsburgh, this claim is even more astounding given the distinct impression that the zoo's major detractor is its lack of animals. Yet, on the flip side, the animals that are there are by and large well kept. One exception was the Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia, whose enclosure was small and without stimulation. Sadly, for the visitor, this is the first animal you encounter (The letter "A" on the map just past the bridge).

The next animals were four Siberian Tigers, Panthera tigris, who in contrast were happily ensconced in a large open area. Nearby was an African Lion, Panthera leo, who was as well kept in an ample enclosure.

Within this section of the zoo a Black Rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis, was also kept in a large enclosure with plenty of natural vegetation. As you can see, he's a magnificent animal, active and healthy. Maryland@Baltimore, Philadelphia and Richmond Metro zoos all have White Rhinoceroses, Ceratotherium simum. The animals at both Maryland@Baltimore and Philadelphia were lethargic to the point of comatose. This animal was clearly more engaged and alert.

The next set of animals is a bit of a hike. Throughout this area of the zoo I found myself surrounded by a group of Amish. Unlike those who were visiting the Maryland@Baltimore Zoo when I was there, these folks kept more to themselves and the locals avoided them. It's so curious an anthropological moment to encounter the interactions between various "species" of humans while observing other members of the mammalia class. I know this sounds ridiculous on one level, but really, it's subtle, but not so different in many ways. The Alpha male in the group was young and virile and had the clear ear of the number two guy. He was tall and spoke loudly. They all speak in their Amish-German dialect and I think they think that provides their words a degree of anonymity, but honestly, German is not that difficult to understand especially when it's sprinkled with GerEnglish (my apologies to Spanglish speakers!). This guy was not impressed with what he saw and was uninhibited in his running snarky commentary. Eaves dropping made the hike to next set of animals go more effortlessly.

So you make it up the next section of hill and come upon a single Dama Gazelle, Nanger dama, and a modest herd of Springbok, Antidorcus marsupialis.

Nearby is a pair of Masai Giraffe, Giraffa camelopdardalis tippelskirchi. Now, you may not know this, but while the Giraffe (Giraffa camelopdardalis) is a single species, it is also a set of nine distinctly unique sub-species. A couple of these are incredibly distinct: Giraffa camelopdardalis reticulata and Giraffa camelopdardalis tippelskirchi. These two don't look like the later, Masai Giraffe, to me. The major distinguishing attribute being the way the spots and background coat look (size, shape & color).

I wish there had been someone to ask about this apparent anomaly.

Here's a picture of a Masai Giraffe. Is my sense of this off base? The Richmond Metro Zoo in Virginia hosts over a dozen giraffe with one magnificent Masai Giraffe. I was able to watch it up close for as long as I liked and did for several minutes. It looked like this photo--very irregular spots, dark with a dark back coat, not the two animals in Pittsburgh. I'm so curious about why this is.

Next you see three African Elephants, Loxodonta africana; a bull, cow, and calf. Not easy animals to keep and these all looked well cared for and were active. A one point the Bull had a "personal stimulated moment" which a bevy of Amish girls found nearly as exciting. It was a delightful encounter.

The Tropical Forest pavilion is the former gem of the zoo--or at least the next newest thing prior to the PPG aquarium. It's a giant tropical terrarium with a series of cages for primates. The cages are arranged so that you circle the enclosure around the central island where they and the plants are kept. The vegetation also separates Cages from one another.

The vegetation is nice; the animals never interact with it. They can always see it, but they can never move through it. I don't know how to characterize this, but it really didn't feel good.

Here a Gabon Black Colobus, Colobus satanas anthracinus, hangs out in his concrete world.

The primates are viewed through these glass barriers.

There are a couple of exceptions to the cages in the center of the pavilion where the live plants are. One is the Bornean Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus. The animal is kept in a completely concrete enclosure built onto the exterior of the pavilion. The only hint at vegetation is the panorama of a jungle painted on the walls, which I doubt very much matters to the poor Orangutan. The lack of light made obtaining a clear photo very difficult.

The other exception is a group of four Western Lowland Gorillas, Gorilla gorilla. Their world is the polar opposite of the orangutan as they run free in a large open grassy space. How you could see one animal so well cared for while another is being kept in a virtual prison is beyond me.

The zoo promotes the presence of poison dart frogs in the pavilion. The reality was a difficult to see, smudged-up aquarium in a faux tree trunk.

The last structure of note is as much an historical landmark as it is a zoo environment. The four adjacent enclosures were the zoo's first foray into creating naturalistic enclosures. The WPA built them in 1937. I have to say that even empty, these are really fascinating structures. The zoo was missing an opportunity in my humble opinion, too. They should open one of the unused enclosures to the public to explore.

Of the four enclosures, two are currently inhabited. The American Black Bear, Ursus americanus were one of the species on display.

Once you complete the round about hike through the zoo, you end up leaving along a brief section of the same path that you entered on. In doing so I passed the Siberian Tigers again, and two of them were particularly active and drawing attention. They are magnificent animals.

Overall, I saw fewer animals and walked more to see the ones I did than at the other zoos I've visited. The admission price is reasonable, and with a few exceptions, the animals that are there are well kept. You won't see small animals. You won't find many reptiles or amphibians. You will encounter a wonderful aquarium. It's a nice zoo. If I could give it a gift. I would create a better home for the orangutan.

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