When I think of America’s first zoo, I picture a warm sunny day when I can gaze at every one of the zoo’s 1,300 animals as I follow paths leading me from one exhibit to the next. What I never imagined was that walking these same paths in the wintertime, I would see and experience something completely different. The animals in the outdoor exhibits are impacted by the change in weather, but for some of them, this is the climate they find most comfortable. I felt as if I was getting an exclusive look at the animals in their prime. On a recent visit, the tigers — who were sitting regally under the sun when I saw them during the zoo’s main tourist season — were pacing and alert, clearly at home in the chill of winter.
The zoo’s typical weekend crowd was nonexistent and I was free to explore without an anxious child squeezing in front of me to get a closer look. I would have expected many of the outdoor exhibits to be closed, but only the giraffes, rhinos, and hippos were kept out of the cold. The zoo map is marked with snowflakes to indicate must-see winter exhibits including Big Cat Falls and Bear Country — which boasted species commonly associated with winter such as the snow leopard and polar bear and snow leopard — and many of the indoor exhibits.
It was snowing the day I visited, so I made my way to the first indoor exhibit I could find: the Rare Animal Conservation Center, which happened to be my favorite. The building houses animals mainly from Brazil and parts of Asia and Africa, including bats, lemurs, moneys, and naked mole rats. Of the 14 different species in this house, nine are endangered; information throughout explained the risks these animals face and how visitors can help. Among the Center’s highlights is a blue-eyed lemur, a species so rare it was thought to be a myth until 1983 when it was first spotted in Madagascar; 1,000 remain in the world; two are here in Philadelphia.
The next indoor exhibit is the Reptile and Amphibian House. I was oblivious to the glass between me and the cobras and alligators as I scampered through this exhibit as terrified as if I was face-to-face with one somewhere out there in nature. I did, however, have to slow down when I was drawn to one that looked like a dinosaur. The Alligator Snapping Turtle was huge (for a turtle) and had features that looked less like the other turtles’ and more like those of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you happen to visit, don’t be fooled by his looks — he is harmless to humans.
The next indoor exhibit I saw was the PECO Primate Reserve, whose appearance is that of an old timber mill turned conservation center; the Reserve has an unshakeable industrial feel despite the orangutans, gorillas, and other moneys within it. It was odd to see the animals in such a place. I arrived in time for the gorilla feeding, when the human-like features of Jabari, a 21-year-old male gorilla, fascinated me. He made eye contact with me and interacted with the other spectators to the point where he punched the glass with clenched fists to tell a little boy to back up. The expert running the show shared that when this happens to people on a safari, they usually wet their pants.
I did manage to brave the cold to see two outdoor exhibits: Big Cat Falls and Bear Country, both with animals who were more comfortable in winter’s cold than in summer’s heat. In addition to the snow leopard, I saw two tigers: a mother and daughter named Kira and Chang Bai. Chang Bai is 3 years old and already bigger than her mother.
Bear country had a black bear walking in circles around a cement ring, and two polar bears that epitomized cold-weather animals to me. Their exhibit was a large rock mass surrounded by water that must have been freezing, but they loved it. That day, the exhibit was covered in snow, and they were rolling around in it, feeling right at home.
Three hours had flown by me and there was still more to see. The zoo in winter was just as fascinating as any other time I’d gone, and there is a hidden perk if you attend on a snowy day: free admission due to snow and ice on the paths. I felt almost guilty not paying, though, since the weather in no way lessened the experience of seeing such exotic animals.
Margaret DeGennaro 2012 graduate, BS/MS in Communications.