Facility Spotlight: Monarto Zoo (South Australia)

 

Located in Monarto, South Australia, at 2,700 acres Montarto Zoo is the largest free-range zoo in the world. It is so large that the Adelaide Zoo (also operated by the non-profit Zoos SA) could fit inside the lion habitat with room to spare. They are home to more than 500 animals of 50 species, and have several native Australian species utilising the grounds as well.

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A free-roaming emu near the cafe

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Shoutout to this hyena for providing a reference point as to just how large these habitats are

Quoting their website, Zoos SA exists “to save species from extinction and connect people with nature.” Not only do they support conservation efforts worldwide, they also run a number of successful breeding programs for several endangered species. This includes Mesopotamian Fallow Deer (nearly extinct in the wild), Yellow-Footed Rock Wallabies, and iconic chimpanzees. They are also home to the only breeding hyenas in the Australasian region.

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A snippet of the expansive chimpanzee habitat

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Lots of opportunity for exhibiting natural behaviours!

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Zuri, the second youngest of the resident chimpanzee troupe. That bald patch had regrown when I visited several months later.

To describe the staff, “passionate” is an understatement. They are friendly and overflowing with interesting information about the zoo and its animals. At times they are also refreshingly blunt, saying that instead of killing a rhino and consuming its horn, one may as well eat hair and tonail clippings from off the floor as it is effectively the same thing. Another remarked that the only way to save the rhino is if it is “removed from Africa”.

And indeed…there is an ambitious move to bring 80 Southern White Rhinos from Africa to Australia for the purpose of conservation. Monarto Zoo, putting their money where their mouth is, will house approximately half of them. The zoo is already home to 6, and have had 5 successful births.

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The zoo actively tries to reduce its ecological footprint, utilizing native plants to assist in reducing soil erosion and water consumption, and solar power is used for the fences and gates.

Monarto Zoo has extensive walking trails through the native bushland (and they run birdwatching walks from time to time), or you can travel around the zoo (and through the habitats!) on their network of buses. The buses make regular stops should people wish to visit the observation platforms and/or hear the various keeper talks.

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Outside the lion habitat. You don’t need to tell me twice!

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Lionesses coming in for a treat during a keeper talk

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The staff strive to dispel myths surrounding hyenas as being monsters, such as people assume from movies like The Lion King

There are a few downsides, which I mention so that you may get as much out of your visit to the zoo as possible: one is transportation. If you don’t have a car, busing IS possible but not ideal if you are on a budget and/or have children. The bus from Adelaide to Mount Barker costs less than $5, where you have a 1-hour layover until a LinkSA picks you up and drops you off over an hour after the zoo opens.  I suspect LinkSA charges an arm and a leg for this short hop simply because they can – about $24 round trip. They neglect to mention this on their site, and other routes appeared to cost less when I tried to find the fare in advance. If you have children, this adds up quickly, and that hour long layover likely won’t go over well.

Further, the nifty bus system around the zoo itself has potential to be problematic. When I visited on a weekday during the off-season it was great!  But accidentally going during school holidays (I imagine weekends are similar), we spent more time waiting for an available bus than looking at the animals. Be sure to bring ample water, as you may be stuck in the hot sun for a long time.

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One other moot point I’ll mention: photography can be difficult since many of your photos will be taken through the heavily tinted windows of a bumpy bus. I mention this because my friend became downright cranky at all the shots he lost out on.  While frustrating at times, there are still plenty of opportunities for good shots away from the buses, including of meerkats, yellow-footed rock wallabies, and chimpanzees, all of which are easily accessible by foot from the main hub (also a bonus in case the buses are full as mentioned above).

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Overall, Monarto is definitely worth a visit. They hit all the right marks, and you are bound to learn something interesting, or at the very least, be entertained watching the animals just be themselves in their massive habitats!  The chimpanzees were particularly fascinating.  Be sure to check this zoo out!

 

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Species Spotlight: Bats

Bats have a bad rap. Whether it be the belief that they are flying rodents, blind and get tangled in your hair, or want to suck your blood, there is no end to stories about them that feed on fear bred from a lack of understanding, and unfortunately the fallout for these ecologically important creatures is huge.

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“But they’ll give you rabies!” people scream, when in reality fewer than 0.5% of bats contract the virus in the first place, and it often kills them.  In Australia there have only been 2 cases of humans contracting Australian Bat Lyssavirus.  More humans die from altercations with household pets than have died from interacting with bats in recorded history (indeed, I often point out that “man’s best friend” frequently attacks people for no reason, yet nobody screams foul). And: any increase in “bat attacks” is due to US continually encroaching in THEIR native habitat.  (note: it is still not recommended you touch a downed one unless vaccinated and qualified to do so)

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Although I sure wouldn’t want to be that banana.

Bats make up about 20% of all mammal species on earth. They are split into two groups: Fruit-eating megabats, and microbats, which are primarily insectivorous (although some eat fish, frogs, blood, and so forth).  Some scientists believe the two groups may have evolved separately though convergent evolution, although this theory has lost ground in recent years. (although interestingly, the flying fox’s brain is remarkably similar to a lemur’s. And female short-nosed bats are the only non-primate species to perform fellatio during intercourse…)

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Ron has no trouble performing fellatio on himself. Prints available here.

Who likes mosquitoes? Bats are nature’s insecticide, and love them.  A single Little Brown Bat can consume upwards of 1000 mosquitoes per hour, and do so for upwards of 40 years.  There have been several cases where farmers noticed a sharp rise in pest-damage to crops after eliminating a colony of bats from their property, and sought to encourage their return.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

A Ghost Bat at the Adelaide Zoo. Ghost Bats are vulnerable to extinction.

Meanwhile, fruit and nectar-loving flying foxes are key pollinators (as it gets stuck to their muzzles as they feed), and seed-dispensers (through their poop), both of which help forests regenerate. Forests that are filled with critters people generally do like a lot more than bats.

Unfortunately, despite being such important and beneficial animals, nearly 1/4 of bat species are threatened with extinction. On top of the usual human-induced culprits such as habitat loss, microbats in North America are now falling prey to a fungal infection called White Nose Syndrome. It has been called “the greatest threat to bats ever seen”, and has caused population declines of upwards of 90%.

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Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Flying Foxes in Australia, meanwhile, keep finding themselves on the receiving end of “relocation” efforts. In 2013 in Charters Towers, Queensland, the local council used smoke, paintballs, high-pressure water hoses, and fireworks to drive 80,000 bats out of town. Acting against (or perhaps because of) the advice of conservationists, they did it during a critical time in the birthing season when infants were too big to fly with their mothers, but to small to fly by themselves, effectively wiping out the next generation. Rescuers were prevented from rescuing downed pups.

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These bats are believed to have re-settled in Townsville, where they were again forced to relocate. But where do they go when we keep destroying their habitat? Entire colonies are now disappearing (as I heard from a conservationist involved in a count), yet their conservation statuses rarely seem to change.

In a town in New South Wales, residents recently tried to set fire to a colony of bats, stating “reduced quality of living, and damage to property”.  I think the bats could say the same thing about living near humans. Humans encroach on their homes, cut down their forests so they have nowhere to go, and then have the audacity to try and set fire to them while calling the bats a plague? Give me a break!!!!!!!

And it isn’t just in Australia. The Mauritian government recently culled 18,000 endemic Mauritian Flying Foxes — a staggering 20% of the threatened population.

So how can you help bats? Install bat-boxes. If you live in warmer climes, don’t trim dead leaves off palm trees, as these can serve as roosts. Volunteer at or donate to rescue centres and other conservation efforts. But most importantly, inform others of how cool bats can be. During my time volunteering at BatReach Kuranda, I shared the stories of the bats I cared for, and several people sent messages saying they had never realised how amazing bats are. The stigma can so easily be reversed if people just open their minds.

Brad would thank you if you do.

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Further reading: To Know Bats is to Love Them

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Facility Spotlight: Vancouver Aquarium

With a strong focus on research and conservation, the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, first opened its doors in 1956, and have become a progressive and excellent example of which other facilities should aspire to be (or be more like, as different facilities satisfy different niches and/or learning styles). For example, in 1996 they became the first facility to pledge to no longer collect marine mammals from the wild, and other facilities quickly followed.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

The Vancouver Aquarium was also the first facility to, effectively, display a killer whale. Although it was far from an ideal situation as the animal was harpooned for the purpose of being used to create a lifesize model, Moby Doll (as she came to be known) changed the way people viewed this highly misunderstood marine mammal, and we stopped using the species for target practice.

Bill Reid's "Chief of the Undersea World" greets aquarium visitors

Bill Reid’s “Chief of the Undersea World” greets aquarium visitors

Split into several different galleries, including Canada’s Arctic, the Tropic Zone (highlighting the Amazon), Penguin Point, and Treasures of the BC Coast (among others), the Vancouver Aquarium provides a glimpse of the natural world from around the globe.

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An African Penguin at Penguin Point

An African Penguin at Penguin Point

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Home to the only marine mammal rescue centre in Canada (Marineland, who are much closer to a threatened population of beluga whales in the St Lawrence, does not operate one), the Vancouver Aquarium rescues, rehabilitates, and often re-releases around 100 animals each year. Primarily seals, they have also saved otters, sea lions, harbour porpoises, a false killer whale, and even sea turtles who were found far from their preferred tropical climes.  Some of the animals were later deemed non-releaseable by the appropriate government authorities, and the aquarium was able to provide them with a permanent home.

Following her rehabilitation in the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, the Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The Vancouver Aquarium was granted special permission to permanently house Schoona after she was deemed non-releasable

The “Frogs Forever?” gallery, which spawned the famous ad and internet response below, highlights the global plight of the world’s amphibians, whose numbers are crashing due to pollution, habitat loss, and the spread of chytrid fungus.  Zoological facilities around the world are working to create a modern-day network of arks for the world’s imperiled amphibians, and the Vancouver Aquarium was the first to breed the Northern Leopard Frog.

Save The Frogs

"Unavailable Due To Extinction"

“Unavailable Due To Extinction”

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The aquarium is also home to some animals you wouldn’t expect to see in such a facility, such as macaws, sloths, marmosets, and fruit bats. This helps create a balanced impression of how everything is interconnected.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

A Jamaican Fruit Bat in the Amazon gallery.

Hurricane the sloth

Hurricane the sloth

The Vancouver Aquarium is home to the only two captive Harbour Porpoises in North America, both of whom were found washed up on beaches in poor condition at about 1 month old, and had a very low chance of survival (Daisy in 2008, Jack in 2011). Volunteers at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre worked around the clock to save them, using purpose-built slings to help them float (and breathe). The two were recently moved into the beluga habitat, which has given them more room to exhibit natural behaviours, such as this side-by-side swimming recorded days after the move in January.

Harbour Porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetaceans, yet very little is known about them. As such, Jack and Daisy not only serve as excellent ambassadors for their species (I know tons of people who now love porpoises!), but are also helping scientists understand them better. In 2013, a porpoise named Levi was successfully rescued and re-released, in part due to what was learned from working with Jack and Daisy.

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The many shows and talks are educational in nature, focusing on husbandry procedures (which, inevitably, showcases the bond between the animals and their trainers), the plight of the animals’ wild counterparts, and stories of the often-rescued animals themselves. For example, how Pacific White-Sided Dolphin Helen was found entangled in a fishing net off the coast of Japan (no, NOT Taiji!) and had to have her pectoral fins partially removed.

Helen dolphin

Chester and Hellen

Chester and Helen

The aquarium also has special programming throughout the year, such as Divers Weekend as seen below.  Other examples include “After Hours” adults-only nights, and the always-popular appearances from Scuba Stanta at Christmas.  Darth Vader even made a special appearance once during “Sea Star Wars”.

In 2015, the aquarium performed groundbreaking surgery on a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin named Hana. It was kind of an “all bets are off” situation as she would not have otherwise recovered. Although Hana sadly did not survive her illness, what veterinarians learned may help save other animals in the future.

Hana

Hana

The Vancouver Aquarium conducts research into why Stellar Sea Lion populations have plummeted.  This includes measuring the metabolism of trained sea lions based at an open water research site, and examining sea lion poop.  They discovered that sea lions are increasingly eating lower-nutrient fish as higher-energy fish stocks are depleted.

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

Ashbee, a Stellar Sea Lion

While visiting the Toronto Zoo, I learned that their polar bear cub was being fed formula that the Vancouver Aquarium helped develop due to their expertise and extensive research involving various arctic animals.  Reputable facilities often work together and share information for the greater good.

Aurora, the last cetacean the aquarium collected from the wild before announcing that they no longer would

Up-close with Aurora, a beluga whale.  The Vancouver Aquarium has been involved in extensive research on this threatened species.

Throughout my life I have heard of the aquarium wanting to expand its habitats, but the same activists who scream that they are “too small” and “inhumane” are the same ones who block the aquarium’s efforts to improve at every turn (much like happened with Blue World Project at SeaWorld recently). Which is it?

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Oh, wait, I know… When Chester the false killer whale was found washed up on a beach in Tofino, animal rights activists were calling for his death as it was “more humane” than a second chance at life. Would they say the same thing about a car accident victim who was certain to never walk again? Frankly, having seen Chester in the flesh, I think he is doing just fine.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

Spontaneous leaping and play, outside of a show.

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So all in all the Vancouver Aquarium is an excellent facility all-around, despite what they naysayers (who often have not even visited them) arbitrarily nitpick.  It is the place this prairie-raised animal-tech student learned to appreciate the aquatic world, which always seemed to out of reach.  Give them a visit, and you will certainly learn something new about our natural world too.

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Facility Spotlight: Sea World Gold Coast (Australia)

Facility Spotlight: SeaWorld Gold Coast. (Queensland, Australia)

Visited: August of 2014.

To be clear, Sea World Gold Coast is not affiliated with the American SeaWorld, instead being operated by Village Roadshow. Although my friend had warned me that the place was “kind of bogan”, I was not prepared for how underwhelming it was. Simply put, it was the most boring place I have ever been that had dolphins.

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

But let’s focus on the high points first: The polar bear habitat, which is among the most technologically advanced in the world, was spacious with impressive landscaping and ample enrichment opportunities for the animals. They were swimming, jumping off the “cliffs”, and having what appeared to be a grand old time. Who would have thought that in Australia these threatened arctic animals could have such a good life? Kind of ironic when you consider climate change is killing them.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

Yes, that is a milk crate on its head and a ball in its paw.

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The dolphin habitats are spacious, sandy-bottomed, and fringed with a small beach for a naturalistic look. The park also makes an effort at being educational, with informative signs found throughout, and an interesting narrative during the dolphin show “Imagine” (since replaced with “Affinity”).

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Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Unfortunately, it seemed as though at least some of the dolphins were as bored as I was. While admiring the animals in the Dolphin Nursery, a couple brought their few toys over and placed them on the shore as close to my feet as they could. Having just visited the vastly superior SeaWorld San Diego, where the dolphins can freely interact with visitors as they choose, including having them throw toys, it was not difficult to guess what these fellows wanted.

It was then I realized that there was no staff around at all to answer visitors’ questions, give small scale educational talks, interact with the animals, or any combination thereof — something I frequently see in other facilities.  Eventually, someone did do a walk around the perimeter, which caught the dolphins’ attention, but he completely ignored them.

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Amity, an Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin

That said, at one point I did see some at a distance engaging in a training session, and the dolphins do seem to have a great relationship with their trainers, but being able to see more of this from a better vantage point would have been nice.  There are no underwater observation areas, either, which go a long way towards helping a person appreciate these amazing marine mammals.

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show "Affinity". Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

A dolphin and its trainer during the new show “Affinity”. Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

There was a lot of hype for the sea lion feeding, but as the feeding platform was at a distance from the main observation areas, anyone who hadn’t paid for the privilege quickly lost interest.

As for the sea lion show, “Fish Detectives”, it was remarkably similar to the clichéd “whodunit” story that was running at the unaffiliated SeaWorld San Antonio, right down to the animals’ names (one was named Claude instead of Clyde). Couldn’t they have come up with something more original?  Especially considering how cool sea lions naturally are…?  Honestly, I couldn’t even stay for the duration.

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“We’re much better than the shows make us look, I swear”

The small number of rides can only be described as lackluster. I wasn’t expecting something like Dreamworld, but SOMETHING to help kill the lengthy wait times between shows would have been nice. (Although interestingly enough Dreamworld has an excellent and much more interactive zoological area, and are one of the single largest contributors to tiger conservation).

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

Photo courtesy of Lawrence J McGill (Facebook: EX Photography. Instagram: xposed68)

I had intended to stay the whole day, but with overly spaced-out shows, absolutely nothing to do in-between, and with some of the animals looking just as bored as I felt, I left early feeling ripped off and far from inspired.  Several people have said I must have visited on a really bad day. If I go back and have a good one, I will happily update as appropriate.  But as it is, with this being the only facility of its kind in Australia, it is unfortunate that if I didn’t already love marine life, Sea World Gold Coast would not have changed my mind.

Pass.

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Facility Spotlight: Bloedel Conservatory (Vancouver, BC)

Vancouver’s Bloedel Floral Conservatory, nestled deep in the heart of Queen Elizabeth Park, opened its doors in 1969. Originally containing just plants, over the years the conservatory has become home to over 200 free-flying birds of various species (at least some of which come from Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary).   Admission is nominal ($6.75 at the time of writing).

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In 2009, Bloedel Conservatory was in jeopardy after the city voted to close one of the few decent tourist attractions (not to mention an excellent place to connect with some gorgeous birds) in what has already come to be known as a “No Fun City”. Set to close following the conclusion of the 2010 Winter Olympics, supporters of the conservatory lobbied in support of this jewel, attendance rose, and enough money was raised that the city reversed its decision. It is now run as a joint project by the Friends of the Bloedel Association and VanDusen Botanical Garden Association.

Clyde, a hybrid Eastern x Crimson Rosella who lived in a small cage for 12 years and is happy to fly free at the conservatory!

The moment you enter, between the birdsong, tropical humidity, and the intoxicating scents of all the plants, you can’t help but feel as though you have entered another world.  Seasonally, they mix things up a bit, such as by decking the conservatory out with lights at Christmas, so there is always something new to see.

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The birds themselves seem to be very well cared for. Many interact with visitors to some extent, and they often exhibit natural behaviours such as nest-building.

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Rudy, an African Grey

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Art, a Blue and Gold Macaw

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The Conservatory provides species ID charts (and scavenger hunt sheets), so you always know what you’re looking at.

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Botanically, the Conservatory features over 500 plants throughout its 3 main habitats: tropical rainforest, subtropical rainforest, and desert.  The birds move freely between these.

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Gidget, a Citron-Crested Cockatoo. She is quite a ham!

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The surrounding park and gardens are well worth a walk through, offering spectacular views of the North Shore mountains…when they’re not enshrouded in clouds!

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If you can’t see the North Shore mountains it is raining. If you can see them, it is going to rain.

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With its incredibly fair admission price, vibrant birds, and exotic plants (not to mention the amazing scents emanating from them!), a visit to Bloedel Conservatory is highly recommended.  And if you happen to be a photographer, you’d be a fool not to!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

Just be sure to visit on a slow day!

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Facility Spotlight: Toronto Zoo

The Toronto Zoo, which was born out of the old Riverdale Zoo and officially opened as a new venture in 1974, is Canada’s largest zoo. It is currently home to over 5000 animals from over 450 species.

The Toronto Zoo is incredibly active in global conservation efforts, which includes the breeding of endangered species – most notably they were the first zoo to champion the captive breeding of Black Footed Ferrets, with the intent of re-releasing them into Saskatchewan where they were extinct in the wild. Evidence of their various conservation efforts can be found throughout the zoo in well-marked signs and exhibits.

A window into The Toronto Zoo's conservation efforts

Global amphibian populations are in peril from pollution, habitat loss, and chytrid fungus.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.

Panamanian Golden Frogs are believed to be extinct in the wild.  Zoos serve as an ark to this species with the hope they can be re-introduced to the wild someday.

The first Burmese Star Tortoise born in captivity

The Burmese Star Tortoise is a critically endangered species now being bred in Canada by the Toronto Zoo

In general the habitats themselves are spacious, attempt to be naturalistic, and have ample enrichment opportunities. The zoo has signage highlighting different kids of enrichment that they provide for the animals, as well as (most importantly) information about their natural habitats and the threats they face in the wild.

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

I do think they could have worded this a bit better, however

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

Things do not look good for the Javan Rhinoceros

And perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water ;)

Although, perhaps someone needs to inform the zoo that whales live in water 😉

Notable highlights are the snow leopards and cheetahs. Toronto Zoo is the only facility I have visited where these beautiful cats have been up and active, and indeed it was through visiting this specific zoo that I was able to gain an enhanced appreciation for them.

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Predator-s-Gaze-584551406?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

Prints: http://tuftedpuffin.deviantart.com/art/Kota-583139314?purchase=print

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

And any zoo that has lemurs automatically scores points IMHO

The orangutans have been another highlight over the years.  Although Adelaide Zoo’s (review coming soon!) orangutan habitat is the most naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing, the orangutans at the Toronto Zoo always seem to be getting up to something.  I vividly remember the first time I saw this species — which happened to be at this zoo — when I was perhaps 10.  My dad pointed out their various behaviours while comparing them to humans.  More accurately, to teenagers as one chillaxed on a raised platform while throwing food scraps to the ground.  A few years ago I saw a young one having a ball as he ran around the habitat with a burlap sack over his head.

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There were two of them playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

There were two playing in this tub, each poking their heads out briefly before throwing a tarp back over themselves.

In November 2015 one of the Toronto Zoo’s polar bears gave birth. One cub died, and the other had to be taken into human care when it was discovered that the mother not producing milk. Apparently, the Vancouver Aquarium assisted in developing a special formula based on their expertise with seals and other Arctic species. Different facilities have their different strengths, and reputable ones work together sharing information for the greater good.

Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear

Toronto Zoo FNF polar bear habitat

The downside of having visited in winter was a number of exhibits and all the eating establishments with the exception of an express Tim Hortons (where you can get drinks and little else) were closed, and outside of scheduled keeper talks there were no staff on hand to answer any questions one might have. I am told the zoo is a completely different place in the on-season. For a zoo to be as enjoyable and educational visit as it was in the off-season speaks volumes about the facility, and so the zoo itself was well worth a visit at any time of the year.

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Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

Da Mao seems to approve of the zoo, too!

 

A side-note on The Toronto Zoo’s elephants.

The Toronto Zoo recently made headlines over the death of a critically endangered African elephant named Iringa.  Prior to the transfer, the treatment of the elephants at the zoo… well, changes depending on who you ask.  But they had been planning to upgrade the habitat.  Animal Rights activists – who have been increasingly targeting any facility with elephants — had lobbied the City of Toronto to have the zoo’s elephants removed, citing unsuitable housing among their many standard complaints.  The city bowed to the activists.  Toronto Zoo staff insisted that the animals should be sent to another zoo with the expertise to care for them, but activists hate all zoos and instead the elephants were sent to PAWS Sanctuary, despite their questionable reputation. As a result, the Toronto Zoo lost its AZA accreditation, and the elephants’ condition quickly deteriorated due to lack of proper care.

Recently, the animals at PAWS were in danger of being killed by wildfire. Due to the facility’s lack of equipment and expertise in proper husbandry procedures, they were unable to get them out (and didn’t seem to be too interested in doing so anyway), and stubbornly refused all outside help. Luckily, none of the animals perished…this time.

It is a sad fact that animal rights activists want to cut off all connections to animals such as elephants.  And they won’t stop there — there is no telling which iconic yet imperiled species will be next.  With wild elephant numbers plummeting ever lower due to poaching, we should be encouraging more people to connect with this species, not taking away one of the best resources of doing so that we have.

Where the Toronto Zoo's elephants once roamed.

Where the Toronto Zoo’s elephant family once roamed.

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Travel Tips: The Backpacker (and how to avoid them)

Many species have been misrepresented over the years. The killer whale’s Latin name roughly means “Demon from the Depths of Hell”, and they were used as target practice until Moby Doll showed us otherwise. Wolves have been mercilessly hunted to extinction in some regions because they too were viewed as monsters. The thylacine was hunted to complete extinction on account of its alleged habit of eating chickens (even though this famous photo is believed by some to have been staged).

There is one subspecies I have personally lived among that I believe has an inaccurate reputation, and that is the backpacker. Often presented as an adventurous young person heroically traveling the world in search of new experiences, carrying only what they can put on their backs, backpackers are in fact noisy codependent alcoholics with short attention spans and little interest in anything that doesn’t satisfy their need to disturb everyone else around them.

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To the backpacker, sitting quietly engaging in any solo activity such as reading a book is seen as a cry for help. Backpackers cannot fathom why anyone would want to be by themselves, let alone be QUIET! I came to suspect that the reason they are so noisy is to alert other backpackers to their presence to ensure they do not accidentally find themselves alone.

More times than I can count, backpackers would hear of my adventures with an expression somewhere between awe and disbelief, replying with some variation of “Oooh, I would love to go there but I have nobody to go with!” Many did not seem to understand my words when I suggested they go by themselves. As such, many spent their entire time abroad in the hostel, never venturing further than the nearest source of food, usually a pub where other backpackers were sure to be found.

Why someone would pay thousands of dollars to travel overseas just so they can sit around getting drunk is beyond me.

Kermit None Of My Business

On those rare times the backpacker does venture forth to see the sights, they are incapable of enjoying anything that they can’t get drunk with, take a good selfie with, or build a fire in. Ancient rainforest? Great place to sing crappy pop songs at the top of their lungs (I guess it was too quiet). National park with spectacular cliffside formations? “What do you mean I can’t build a fire here? This is boring!” Beautiful waterfall? “Time to get naked and ruin its natural beauty for everyone else!”

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended -- review forthcoming)

MIllaa Millaa Falls, taken while on tour with On The Wallaby (NOT recommended — review forthcoming)

Case in point: a natural cave had been “enhanced” with steps and seating carved into the rock.  My friend pondered why, so I explained how backpackers can’t enjoy anything natural without the aforementioned conditions. With eerily perfect timing a large group of German backpackers carrying a portable barbecue and several coolers came noisily up the steps, announcing their presence to everyone within a 10km radius.

So if you plan on traveling on a budget, take heed! Pay the extra few dollars for a proper tour that you are confident is not aimed at backpackers (watch this blog for reviews!), especially if you hope to see some nature on it. Consider alternatives to the hostel scene, such as AirBNB. If you must stay in a hostel, check reviews on tripadvisor for ones that backpackers claim “lacks atmosphere” or “is full of old people”, and make sure there is not an attached pub or you’ll never have a second alone to pee or get a wink of sleep in preparation for your own adventures… which is just how the backpackers prefer it.

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Vladimir Putin is a Hairless Cat

I recently heard a story about Vladimir Putin visiting the Primorsky Aquarium — a controversial yet once seemingly promising aquarium in the Russian Far East, plagued with delays due to embezzlement and allegedly shoddy construction — and effectively yelling at staff, demanding they finish building it already.  Although this is undoubtedly at least part fabrication, Putin has visited Primorsky, and has demonstrated that he doesn’t mess around when sh*t needs doing.  But with stories of more orcas being caught in Russia and sent… to where exactly? I started thinking about the larger article in there somewhere.

And then I found something *much* more noteworthy: apparently, people think Vladimir Putin looks like a hairless cat.  How did I not know this?  And now you do too.  You’re welcome.

(only the top two comparisons are my own, and I take no credit for any images posted below)


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epa03257832 Two hairless Sphynx purebred cats are pictured at the Dog Show with Purebred Cats Show in Erfurt, Germany, 10 June 2012. About 17000 visitors attended the show featuring about 4000 breeds of dogs and pedigree cats. EPA/MICHAEL REICHEL
Because I started this blog post thinking about Russia’s cetaceans, I figured I ought to finish with something appropriate to that theme, especially since the Russian president may or may not be in command of an army of “spy dolphins”.

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Tour Review: Dolphin Explorer

Official Tour Site

Where: Port Adelaide, South Australia
Cost: $8/adult, $6/child
Who is it for?: Hungry people, gawkers, children, anyone who is happy with a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin
Who is it not for?: Serious nature lovers and photographers.

Despite the abundance of dolphins in the Port River, including a population known to do “tricks”, there isn’t really anything available for whale or dolphin watching right out of Adelaide itself (although there are options further south at Victor Harbor), so the Dolphin Explorer pretty much has the local monopoly.  My expectations were low as locals had created the impression that it was more of a floating restaurant and/or party boat where seeing dolphins was incidental, but for a mere $8 I gave it a go anyway.

The scenery left something to be desired.

The scenery often left something to be desired.

Floating restaurant aside, the Dolphin Explorer is more of a river cruise than a wildlife tour.  Although you will most likely see cetaceans (a rarity among tours I have discovered — more on that in the future), the boat does not slow down or turn around when dolphins are sighted, so all you get are fleeting glimpses of the animals unless you’re lucky enough to be standing in one of the front corners should a dolphin decide to bow-ride (tip: stand in a front corner).

Dolphin Explorer 5

The bird life was decent, with abundant cormorants (including the slightly less-common Black Faced Cormorant) and terns.

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Dolphin Explorer 4

The majority of people on the boat seemed satisfied with the tour, but as a serious nature lover and photographer I felt it could have been better.  Every other cetacean-watching tour I have been on had more maneuverable vessels that would at least slow down to better watch the animals in the unlikely event some actually showed up.  That said, for the price, the Dolphin Explorer does provide an affordable outing for everyone, especially families.  At least you actually see dolphins, so don’t write it off, but don’t go out of your way or expect too much either.

If you are a photographer: due to the nature of this tour, bring a very long telephoto.  I had my 80-400 and found myself wishing I had my 150-600 instead.

Dolphin Explorer 1

UPDATE:  I went on several more tours, both with this operator and their competitor.  Ultimately, duds.  Dolphins were so far away only I made them out through my (this time) 600mm lens.  Most people were too busy stuffing their faces and drinking to care the one time one did come close.  Still do not recommend, unless you’re only there for the food.

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On Being Pro-Captivity

Note: this post ran away on me, and there are still so many aspects not covered or elaborated on.  Hopefully this will provide a general idea of where the two sides stand on captivity, however.  Feedback is more than welcome!

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The world is not black and white, and yet the debate surrounding captivity seems to have been split into two extremes: “pro-cap” and “anti-cap” are two terms often used on social media. Far too many view the issue in black and white terms, but as someone once said, “the only thing black and white are the orcas”.  That said…

“Antis” tend to be against ALL zoos and aquariums – period– believing them to all be equal.  Many antis are against pet ownership and service animals as well, as they view ALL human-animal interactions as slavery (“don’t shop, adopt” and breeder-shaming are part of a larger plan to do away with domestic animals – see a collection of quotes here).  With that, it might be easy to assume that “pros” support rounding up all animals and throwing them in cages so we can mock them. This is simply not true, despite what the antis often claim.

Simplified, to be pro-captivity is to see the benefits of having animals in human care. We see the shades of grey and look at the big picture.  We acknowledge the powerful human-animal bond across a plethora of species, knowing that if it is removed, apathy will prevail in this increasingly disconnected world.

Contrary to anti-cap belief, pro-caps are hugely in favour of animal welfare, and know that not all zoological facilities are created equal.  While one may be exceptional, another just a few kilometers away may deserve to be shut down. While one may have the facilities and expertise needed to house a particular species, others don’t and should re-locate their animals to those who do (or build better habitats).  Some have amazing conservation initiatives, while others have none.  Many facilities even have rescue and rehabilitation programs in place, and what they learn from caring for captive animals helps them better care for sick and injured wildlife so that it can be re-released.

As Baba Dioum famously said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” What we learn from captive members of a species can be applied towards saving wild populations, including through a newfound love of these creatures gleaned from seeing (and bonding with) individuals in a captive setting.  This is especially true in the case of children, who are the future of conservation.  It cannot be replicated through simply seeing animals on TV.  A great example of how captivity changed our view of a species can be found in the story of Moby Doll, the first captive orca to be displayed.

During a visit to the Adelaide Zoo, a fellow visitor mentioned how she was against captivity until witnessing first-hand the destruction of the orangutan’s natural habitat, and now knows zoos are necessary for the species’ survival.  During that same visit I overheard a father tell his son to take a good look at the orangutans, because if humanity doesn’t change its ways, the zoo will be the only place left to see them. Unfortunately, if the Animal Rights and anti-captivity movements are allowed to win, we won’t even have that… and it is the animals who will lose.

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Karta, a female Sumatran Orangutan at the Adelaide Zoo. Prints Available Here

 

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