Our Father’s Day reunion weekend in Philly ended with a trip to a classic family activity — a trip to the zoo.
And this zoo in particular is a historic destination as well. The Philadelphia Zoo is America’s first, having received a charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1859 and opening its gates fifteen years later in 1874 with over 600 animals. Today, the conservation and education centered zoo has more than 1,300 animals under its care.
My oldest sister Sarah had to take off early to make the long drive back to Massachusetts in Sunday traffic, and so after a classic brunch of dad’s famous pancakes and a round of goodbyes, the remaining four of us made our way towards the wild side.
As with any family outing, much of it consisted of ridiculous photo ops and borderline bad behavior.
Recently I wrote a post about how my views on zoos and aquariums are evolving, it was interesting to visit this one through that lens. Even more interesting was to read, just a few weeks after our visit, a fascinating profile in The New York Times about a doctor who spends his days treating distressed zoo animals.
The New York Times article discusses the evolution of zoos and how it is happening slowly, so that while one section of a zoo might feel extremely forward-thinking, education-focused and appropriately complex and sized for the animal living in it, others might still be awaiting renovation and leave the visitor feeling squeamish by today’s standards.
Overall, I found the Philadelphia Zoo very evolved, with a strong focus on education and conservation. A few times we joked it seemed the animals were literally running the place — peacocks strutted alongside guests, goats climbed a jungle gym that children were scampering on moments before, and above our heads excitable monkeys played and laid back panthers strutted by.
The latter is a product of Zoo360, a network of trails that allows animals to leave their homes and travel above and around the zoo grounds. Lemurs, monkeys and orangutans have their own trails, and since Spring 2014, as do the big cats. Expansions for the big cats and gorillas are on the docket for 2015, while in 2016 the zoo plans to link together the Great Plains exhibits so that giraffes, rhinos and zebras can rotate and time share their environments. This was one of the most original things I’ve seen in the zoos I’ve visited around the world — an interactive experience for visitors as well as a more stimulating and unrestricted environment for the animals.
In the Big Cat house, I browsed an interactive display about destructive palm oil harvesting and signed a petition — later at home I found myself researching the topic for the first time and thankful to the zoo for inspiring my interest in it. For younger visitors, a wall asking kids why it was important to protect big cats yielded hilarious results, my favorite response being a somber, “Big cats are my only friends.”
The Philly Zoo is also looking out for the health of its human visitors — we were amazed that in addition to the usual hot dog and ice cream stands, there was a healthy dining stand selling fruit and salads and touting “responsibly raised proteins”, and a gourmet taco truck doling out delicious meals.
As The New York Times story suggested, most US zoos are in state of flux, with some habitats lagging behind the others. In contrast to so many of the lush and sprawling enclosures outside, I found the primate house lacking and didn’t linger.
The traveler in me never quits. The more animals we saw, the more trips I found myself planning in my mind to visit them next on their own turf — to track gorillas in Rwanda, to photograph giant tortoises in the Galapagos, to walk alongside camels in the shadow the Egyptian pyramids. Talk about wanderlust!
I don’t think I will ever be able to look at giraffes again without thinking of David Samuel’s description of them as “leggy blonde models who have been fed a month’s supply of Xanax.”
Yet as exotic as so many of the Philadelphia Zoo’s residents are, when we made our way to the exit naming our favorite animals, I found myself naming the otter without hesitation.
As someone who is admittedly ambivalent about zoos, I really enjoyed our family afternoon wandering around this one. My sniff test is, “Did I leave feeling mostly guilty and conflicted, or did I leave feeling mostly educated and uplifted?” This one fell firmly in the latter camp.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Philadelphia and made my way back to my beloved NYC. Any suggestions on what I can’t miss next time I’m in The City of Brotherly Love?