Saturday, December 22, 2012

At the Zoo

My husband travels a lot through his work. Sometimes I tag along, especially when the work takes him to interesting places, like Buenos Aires. But since he is working, I usually have a lot of time to explore on my own. I like to walk around the city, and visit museums and parks. This recent trip was no exception and I took the opportunity to visit the Buenos Aires Jardin Zoologico, or the Zoo. I have sort of mixed feelings about zoos. On the one hand, I love seeing the beautiful and exotic animals. I am especially fond of penguins and meerkats. The best zoos have animals in comfortable, natural habitats. They educate people about the importance of biodiversity and the problem of habitat loss. They provide safe homes for endangered animals. But I'm always a bit uncomfortable with the idea of capturing and caging animals, especially when the enclosures are the old-fashioned type with few natural amenities. The Buenos Aires zoo probably falls into the old-fashioned category, and some aspects of this made me uncomfortable. But I still found it to be a charming place, especially because of the old fashioned buildings, but more importantly, because of the animals that were not captive!

When I walked through the gates, the first thing I saw was one of the ubiquitous stray cats that inhabit every crevice of Buenos Aires. No big surprise there.

Zoo Cat
But it got much more interesting after that. Right at the entrance there was a large water feature with a fountain. On the shores of the water and in the bushes I could see rather large brown mammals roaming about. I walked closer and saw that they were Nutria. I'd never seen a Nutria in person so I was pretty excited, but once I realized what they were, it didn't seem surprising. They are pests in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast states and since they're native to South America, it would figure that they'd be abundant down here, too. I just didn't expect to be able to walk so close to them.

But wait, it gets better! Right across from the Nutrias, a large, weird creature emerged from the bushes. It looked like a joke--a combination between a rabbit and a small deer. Maybe the I'd found a real Jackalope! It took a while for me to finally find a zoo employee who could tell me that the animals were "Maras", or Patagonian Hares. It turns out that they are rodents and not hares and are almost a threatened species, but not at this zoo. They were everywhere, grazing on the grass, walking on the sidewalk, eating food from visitors, lazing in the sun. I saw literally hundreds of them, free and unencumbered. It occurred to me that there was very little standing between them and wandering into downtown Buenos Aires, and later I asked a friend about this. He said that yes, sometimes they do get out. Keep in mind that this zoo is on a busy street, similar to Broadway in New York.


Maras and Vicuna

Maras, Muskovies and Giraffes

Feeding the Maras
Maras and Southern Screamer
Ho hum--just another Mara
After seeing free range Maras and Nutrias, the regular, caged animals were not nearly as fun to look at. This was an old zoo and many of the cages and enclosures were depressing and unenriching for the animals, so I hurried by them. A lot of them were just empty. The condor enclosure reminded me of a giant, filigreed bird cage. It seemed to be empty, though, so I never saw a condor. What I did see, though, was Nutrias in just about every enclosure, including the one designated for them. I guess that theirs had a permeable barrier.
Empty Condor Cage (Apartment building in background)

Elephants with high rise apartment in background

Seals and school children

Nutria Cage

Nutria visiting the Gnu

Nutria visiting the Anteater

Walking around, I saw a turtle on the path, Muskovy Ducks, Southern Screamers, Guinea fowl moving in and out of the bushes, and Peacocks everywhere, strutting their stuff. One male Peacock cornered a family, fluffed out his feathers and rattled them in a defensive display, causing a little boy to shriek in terror. I followed one around for a while, trying to get a good closeup of the eyes on the tail, and it finally scurried into the bushes to hide from me. But not very well.

Turtle on the path

Southern Screamers (Chauna torquata)
Peacock Scaring Children

There is no Peacock here

One highlight of the zoo trip was finding that the trees by the lagoon were full of Egret nests and Black Crowned Night Herons. The palm trees were loaded with Egrets and chicks. I really wished that I  had my large telephoto to catch some of those little chicks. The palm trees looked like high rise apartment buildings, with a nest at every level. In another location I saw a pair of lovers embracing under a tree, totally unaware of the numerous Night Herons perched overhead.

Egret Condo

Egret Nests

Hidden Herons

So in the end, I had a marvelous time. The old fashioned zoo that could have been a real downer was instead a great close encounter experience. The animals that I did find in cages seemed pretty happy, and the ones that weren't definitely were. All this right in the heart of Buenos Aires. What a wonder! Maras!

Zoos Help us Connect With Nature

Post Script, July 2016: Out of concern for the welfare and dignity of zoo animals, officials in Buenos Aires will close the zoo this year and relocate most of the animals to nature preserves around Argentina. The zoo space will be converted to an educational eco park and a number of animals will remain there because there were problems finding suitable spaces for them. You can read more about the story here and here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Our Best Friends

Cat sleeping in front of a restaurant. Or waiting for a taxi?
Here in Buenos Aires people seem to have an interesting relationship with cats and dogs. This is a big city with about 3 million people in the city proper, and closer to 13 million in the greater city. People are packed in tight, with most living in apartment buildings. It is much like New York or Chicago. The traffic is busy, loud and fast. Most people walk and take mass transit because the streets are so congested. You'd think in these circumstances that people would shy away from keeping pets. But this is not the case in Buenos Aires. They love their pets! People bring their pets everywhere and let them roam freely, as if they lived in small towns with dirt roads. 
People bring their dogs everywhere
You can see people walking dogs of all sizes. Often the dogs are on leashes, but not always. Many dogs walk somewhere near their owners, although not always. 
Joyful puppy chases pigeons in the park
You'd think that in a city this size, loose dogs and cats would be quite a problem. But it all seems to work. In nearly 4 weeks, I have not seen negative interactions, nor have I seen animals (with the exception of a few pigeons) hit by cars.
This dog was hanging out at a hospital. I couldn't tell if it was stray or just roaming around its owners.

In the swanky downtown neighborhoods it is very common to see professional dog walkers with big groups of dogs. They attach the leashes to a harness on their waist and walk. I'm always impressed at how well behaved the groups of dogs are.
Dog Walker
There are pet stores and veterinary offices just about every 2 blocks, all over the city.
Dog Food and Vet!
People dress their dogs in coats and little tutus. In tourist areas, dogs dressed in costumes pose for photos.
Pampered Pet
Working Dog--I don't think this is the photo pose they were hoping for
Shop owners let their pets, both cats and dogs, wander in and out of stores or sleep at the entrance.
Smart cat--this store sells meat 
Shop Dogs
Dogs here seem generally pretty laid back. They don't react much when we walk by them. My own two dogs jump on guests and bark at other dogs and I really haven't seen much of that here. Maybe it's different in the home.

Many people are conscientious about their pets, but many are not. Despite the occasional sign reminding people to clean up, there is poop all over the sidewalks.

Poopy Sidewalk
There are also a LOT of strays. I've noticed that it is common to see unneutered male dogs and cats here, and this probably contributes to the problem. Stray cats are everywhere. They are common in parks and protected areas such as the bushes and grass along the railroad tracks.
Park Cat
 They were also very common on the campus of the college where my husband was teaching. People there told me that the dumping or releasing of animals was a big problem on the campus and that there had been several instances of dog bites.

It's Prohibited to Abandon Animals, but...
But, as I said at the beginning, people in Buenos Aires love animals. I've seen kind souls in all parts of the city who set out food for the stray cats. They set out water and cat food, as well as milk and leftovers from dinner. I saw noodles at one cat feeding station. I watched 2 people about 2 hours apart feed cats in the same location at the campus. They were both surrounded by meowing, excited cats.

Cat Feeder  
Another Cat Feeder, 2 hours later 
Pasta, Milk and Cat Food 
Cat Lady at the Park
As for the stray dogs, so far I have had no problem with them, and in fact, I admire their independence, as well as the way they have adapted to get what they need from people. On one of our first trips downtown, my husband and I were heading towards some busy streets (3 lanes each direction) on our way from the train station. Suddenly, a large black dog trotted towards us. I was a little uneasy because I've always learned to stay away from strange dogs. But this one seemed friendly and even wagged its tail when it came near us. It walked along with us for a half block or so. When we came to the crosswalk to cross the busy road, the dog sat on the ground next to me and waited with us. The light changed and we crossed halfway. The dog went with us, and then sat next to us again in the middle. Then the light changed again and we all walked together to the other side, where the dog trotted off to do whatever it was it had planned. The dog had figured out that people know how to cross streets, so if it wanted to cross safely, it just needed to find some people and cross with them. That is one smart dog.
Smart Dog at Half-Way Point of Intersection
I've read that it is thought that the relationship between man and dog first arose because dogs recognized that people were a source of food (from scraps and garbage) and shelter. In exchange, the dogs protected their territory and provided protection for the humans. Eventually they began to enjoy each other's company. Match made in heaven. Cats were probably attracted to humans because of the rodents we would attract by storing food, and humans allowed the cats to stay because of the service they performed. Eventually the cats brainwashed the humans and convinced us to serve them by rewarding us with the occasional rub on our legs and by purring, all the while remaining aloof. Match made for cats. Little joke.
Dogs just like to be around people
Some dogs hang around sidewalk cafes in Buenos Aires, and they seem to get enough food from handouts, because I haven't seen any especially sickly looking dogs yet. The dogs move around from table to table, looking hopeful. No one seems to shoo them away. Last weekend I was at an outdoor cafe and a dog plopped down on the ground next to me and fell asleep. She wasn't begging for food--just napping. But if another dog tried to cross the street and come near the cafe, she would get up and bark a few times to chase if off. Then she came back and napped.
My Lunch Friend

Lunch Friend chases off interloper
Another day I was in a park on a very hot day and a big black dog walked past me and right into the lake in the middle of the park. It lay down in the water, got nice and wet and cool, had a drink, and then got out, shook off, and trotted away. No owner in sight.

Cooling off
I'm not passing judgement or saying if this is better or worse than the relationship between pets and people in the U.S. I know that cats roaming free pose a huge danger to bird populations, and all the stray dogs could carry disease for other dogs and for humans. Stray and outdoor cats are very common all over the world. Rabies is a problem in South America, and also in the U.S. But it's just interesting to me to observe the different attitudes with regard to pets as I travel in Argentina. I guess I'd describe the relationship as "tranquilo"--Spanish for "calm" or "easy". No one gets too excited, and everyone gets what they need.
Cemetery Cat

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


My husband and I are staying in Argentina for 6 weeks while he teaches a course at the Agricultural Faculty of the University of Buenos Aires (FAUBA). We've enjoyed our time so far in this huge, vibrant city. The people are friendly, the food is wonderful, and the city is so interesting.
Downtown Buenos Aires

Things here are similar and yet so different from our life in Florida. I've been especially interested in the flora and fauna (no surprise) and stop at every chance to see the butterflies, flowering trees and backyard birds of Buenos Aires. In fact, I was planning on writing my next entry about urban wildlife. And then I found the Botanical Garden! A student in the lab of the professor who invited my husband to teach shares my interest in insects and he told me about a lovely garden on the UBA campus. I decided to scope it out today and was overjoyed to find this wonderful little sanctuary in the midst of the big city. For all its interesting and wonderful points, Buenos Aires is a big and dirty city, not at all unlike New York. The noises of cars and trains and the general dirtiness can be a bit taxing. But if you've got a quiet green spot to turn to for a break from the grit, it's also very bearable. This Botanical Garden proved as much for me today, and I have a feeling that I will be a frequent visitor over the next few weeks.

To enter the garden, I first walked several blocks along a busy, sunny street.
Outside of the Campus

But then I turned on to the campus and found a pretty wrought iron gate, with a handle.

The Secret Garden
 I turned the handle and walked in to a breath of fresh air, with flowering Angel's Trumpets and Pomegranates, chirping and fluttering birds and the occasional stray cat.
Stray Cat Drinking at Pond

 I walked past the young lovers embracing on the grass and went down along the bamboo lined path. Among the rows of beautiful flowers, I saw tropical butterflies and even found a toad.

Yellow Lazy (Actinote carycina)

Butterfly on Heliotrope
In the trees and on the grass, Chalk Browed Mockingbirds, thrushes that resemble American Robins and Rufous Hornero birds, the National Bird of Argentina, ran around looking for bugs.

Robin-Like Thrush
 I could hear the Kiskadees and Loros (green parakeets) squawking from the trees.
Great Kiskadee sitting on a Sculpture in the Pond

When I return I also hope to find hummingbirds. I saw several amazing birds with long tails and head tufts. I don't know what they are yet, but will figure it out. (NOTE: I later learned that this is a Guira Cuckoo!)
Mystery Bird (Guira Cuckoo)
I spoke to a gardener in my poor Spanish and his poor English and he told me what they were called, but I didn't understand. He seemed to tell me that they were pests but still beautiful. I think he also told me that there were plants from all parts of Argentina, from the mountains to the great plains, and that it was a wonderful place, but that it was spoiled by the sounds from the road. I felt just the opposite--the city was made beautiful by the lovely little garden.