I was lucky enough to visit the Houston Zoo on my recent trip to Texas’s largest city and boy, was I impressed! Let me start off by admitting my ambivalence about zoos in terms of what’s best for the animals kept in them, the prison-like enclosures in some zoos, and all the troubling ethical stuff that goes along with them. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I volunteered at the National Zoo here in D.C. as a docent for two years and have come to see zoos’ purpose, and, more importantly, the role of the animals kept within them, as that of ambassadors; the zoo, an embassy to the natural world. With exposure comes education and understanding and from that basis, respect for the natural world and its animals develops, hopefully spurring an impulse to conserve and protect in those who visit zoos, especially children.
That said, the Houston Zoo, all 55 acres of it, knocked my socks off–especially the cheetah exhibit, where I saw two full-grown male cheetahs chase after balls with two keepers, armed only with wooden shepherds’ crooks. While one keeper explained to the crowd that the cheetahs haven’t yet learned to truly fetch, a cheetah sauntered up to her hand, ball clenched in his mouth, asking for another toss to chase after.
I contacted Brian Hill, director of PR for the zoo, and he informed me the cheetahs are just part of an exhibit that includes Anatolian shepherds (dogs!) who were introduced to the cheetahs when they were young. Hill tells me that the unlikely pairing of cheetahs and shepherds has worked well and that “they enjoy each others’ company and allow keepers to tell a unique conservation story, how Anatolian shepherds have saved cheetahs in Namibia” where goat herders and ranchers use the pups to guard their herds from the cheetahs to obviate the need to shoot or poison the cheetahs.
The zoo features many other animals, of course. Some of my favorites were the Asian small-clawed otters in the Natural Encounters building.
Their enclosure was built so that visitors can see their frantic play both on land and below the water. The Wortham World of Primates was also impressive and contains 70 Great Apes and monkeys. The exhibit opens with lemurs, the most primitive of the primates, and winds its way through the woods to a big orangutan exhibit, bordered by a pond chock-full of chubby koi.
The zoo works hard to engage visitors, leading 20-30 interactive presentations every day. They’re also making changes to green their facility. Last April the zoo installed solar panels at the African lion exhibit, which provide one-third of the exhibit’s energy needs. Their conservation department is engaged in global conservation efforts of orangs and pygmy elephants in Borneo, amphibians in Panama, and sea turtles, black bears, and Attwater’s prairie chickens closer to home in the Lone Star state.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
IT wants to know: Have you visited the Houston Zoo? What were your impressions? What’s your favorite zoo? How do you feel about zoos in general? Are they really embassies to the natural world or antiquated animal menageries from a past age?
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Photos: courtesy Houston Zoo