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.