“Our goal is to be a world-class zoo,” said Reid Park Zoo’s Deborah Carr, director of marketing and events. As she gave the Sun News staff a grand tour, her enthusiasm for the zoo and its future prospects was both genuine and infectious. Already a very fine zoo, it is a true unappreciated gem of Tucson, one that is set for a major improvement over the next few years.
Once its expansion is complete, the zoo will cover about 27.5 acres.
Even though the zoo is located in an American desert, it has significant international outreach. Carr told me “We are helping to create safe corridors so elephants can move freely in Tanzania in the Tarangire National Park. It’s protected over a million acres.” The zoo also has an “adopt an animal” program. “Charles Foley is the director of that program,” explained Carr. “He comes here quite frequently to give talks. We took a field trip with him to Tanzania a couple years ago and it was amazing because they brought back all this footage: everything we see our elephants doing here they’re doing in the wild. It was interesting to see the herd dynamics between the wild elephants and the ones here.” An elephant named Penzi was born at the zoo just last year in April. While not exactly cuddly with a birthweight of 295 pounds (now 1,000 pounds), the adorable Penzi is regarded by many zoo visitors as the star attraction here (don’t tell that to Tony, the African lion). For those into smaller animals, some meerkats were born here just a week after Penzi.
Reid Park Zoo also partners with the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group to lead a flamingo study in the Andean Highlands. A recent annual report states “Little is known about the ecology of the Andean highland flamingos, so the first step in protecting them is to learn more about their population health and migration patterns using GPS satellite transmitters.” The flamingos at the zoo recently got a new habitat area with a Mayan-style temple as a backdrop. I spoke to Animal Care Manager Adam Ramsey about it. “Having a more open habitat has been beneficial to them. They live on big salt flats and open areas in the wild; I think they actually prefer this new space where they can see things, come up to the public closer – we are seeing some really great natural behaviours.” Lead sponsors of the new flamingo lagoon, which offers the flock a 50% increase in their landmass and walkable water space, are board member Mica Bane and her husband Jeff Bane.
Another fan favourite with the public are the giraffes. “Jasiri is the biggest at over 16 feet tall and weighs about 2500 pounds. Denver the female is 14 feet tall and weighs about 1600 pounds. She is 34 years old, the second-oldest giraffe in the country,” said Ramsey. “The average lifespan is between 19 and 20 years old, so at 32 she is extremely old. She gets to go out in the morning when it’s a little cooler, and we bring her in when the day warms on so she does not get stressed at her age. She can be a little picky with her food, so the keepers go out everyday and try a dozen different things with her and see what she wants to eat that day and that’s what she gets. She’s a lot of work, but she’s worth it.” Last year the two adult giraffes were joined by Penelope (2 years old) and a one-year-old male, Sota. “Even though Jasiri has been really gentle with them, I think they are intimidated by him because he’s so big. We’re just taking our time and letting them build their confidence and get to know him. They are fully introduced with Denver so she can go out with them, but it’s a slow process. We just want to make sure our animals are safe – we put their interests first.”
One important aspect of looking after their best interests is proper breeding. “There are more than 100 Species Survival Program (SSPs) in zoos, so most species in zoos are recognized by an SSP, and each one of those has a stud-book keeper.” There are 50 SSPs at Reid Park Zoo, and Ramsey explained that “They track the bloodlines and the historic population and makes recommendations on the best genetic mixes so we are creating good genetic variability in the population to sustain that population for the long term. If we just breed whoever, then things could get inbred pretty quick and affect the population’s viability. It’s pretty fascinating to watch and learn about.”
Looking to the future, the zoo expansion will feature Asian animals including red pandas (the first kind of panda ever discovered) native to the Himalayas, Komodo dragons, and fishing cats. With 183 species of trees, the zoo is also a delight for those interested in the arboreal side of things. While the only python in the trees here is a model, don’t forget to visit Frida the green tree python (Morelia viridis). First identified in 1872, this type of snake is native to New Guinea, Indonesia and Australia.
Photos by C Cunningham
For more information: www.ReidParkZoo.org
Entry to the Zoo is located off 22nd St between Alvernon Way and Country Club.
They have a very fine cafe here, with large baked pretzels, and a range of hot lunch dishes.