Sunday, May 15, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

Dublin Day 11: "Get outta here, birds. This is fancy bird town."

When we set off for Dublin Zoo this morning, I had no idea what to expect. I am not a huge fan of zoos back home. I’m not a huge fan of caging animals. I figured this zoo would be like any other. Boy, was I wrong! Anyone who has the time to go see the zoo while in Phoenix Park or in Dublin should definitely go check it out. I saw the most animals I have ever seen in one visit, most performing natural behaviors in natural habitats. That makes me a very happy animal lover and a very happy visitor.

Instead of the usual coach to get somewhere, we took the light rail system called LUAS (pronounced like Lewis, which is what I thought it was called at first). The stop was just a few blocks down from our hotel and the ticket was cheap—this is the ideal way of getting around central Dublin on a budget. In fact, we planned to take it to Kilmainham Geol (Jail) the next morning until we found out it would be under construction that day.

Anyway, the ride to Phoenix Park took about a half hour and the cars were full with people. The train jerked around a lot like a subway, but worse because the train has to follow traffic rules. It’s crazy how crazy the streets of Dublin are sometimes. After the bumpy ride, we arrived at Heuston Station and then walked the remaining fifteen minutes up through Phoenix Park and into the zoo.

Dublin Zoo is the third oldest zoo in the world, after Vienna and London. It opened in 1830, complete with horrible Victorian cages, elephant rides, and animals trained for side shows. The idea was to subdue the animals so that people could physically interact with them—probably not something they should be doing. One of the main objectives of Dublin Zoo today is redoing all of the old caging and creating natural habitats for the animals. The elephant and gorilla exhibits are the best of these new exhibits so far, and we got to see both.

The zoo itself is not huge—American zoos probably have more space with more animals. But the variety of animals that were housed in natural habitats was astounding. We learned a little more about that thanks to one of the elephant keepers named Gerry. He gave us a lecture on conservation in zoos and how to use human care as a positive rather than a negative. The humans are only there to assist, not to control. The habitat should make sense to the anatomy and behaviors of the animal, not the profit margin of the zoo. People will always come to see animals, so why not have those animals be comfortable and active? That makes the exhibit more interactive and also allows the animals to be happier, healthier, and more cooperative?

Elephants, Gerry assured us, are one of the most dangerous animals in the zoo. In the past, elephants have even killed handlers who treated them poorly. Gerry believes their power should be acknowledged and carefully respected. But their environment should also help them to be as comfortable—and thus, as happy—as possible. Seven-foot sand covers most of the exhibit, which can be used to sleep on and burrow into. The keepers work each and every day to deliver food in exciting and innovative ways, like planting brush into the sand, raining pellets down from above for them to find, or hanging hay above their heads in nets to exercise their trunks. There is even a remote feeding wall that not only requires mental engagement to open (the holes are all different sizes for different trunks, so no one elephant can steal all the food), but can be activated by a text from the keeper. Gerry told us that last week, he fed the elephants from 30,000 feet on a plane back from the US!

We learned a little bit about their diet as well, and why that is important for keeping health up. Overall, the message seemed to be that, as much mimicking of the wild that can be done should be done. The Dublin Zoo elephants sleep every night, and laying down each night. Their babies are active and energetic all the time. The female elephants all gave natural births, with the whole herd engaged in the process—just like in the wild. All of the elephants are comfortable, well taken care of, and look genuinely happy. It was awesome to see a program so concerned with the welfare of the animals rather than the welfare of the zoo’s wallet.

After the presentation, we walked over to the elephant habitat. It is a huge indoor area connected to a series of outdoor spaces, which we needed to walk through to get to the house. The elephants were all inside, munching on their food. But when we came in, the keepers threw some peanuts around so that we could see the elephants up close to the window.

But the closeness wasn’t even the most amazing part. When Gerry started talking, the matriarch elephant Dina heard his voice. She let out a literal scream like I have never heard before. It sounded like a dinosaur noise from the movies. We all jumped, but Gerry laughed. “She must be able to hear me through the glass,” he said. “She just wants to say hello.” I was astonished. In all my time at zoos, I have never heard an elephant—let alone any animal—be that vocal. They usually just sit around and wait for the spectators to move on. Dina’s scream is a testament to how well this zoo has taken care of these animals. If she feels comfortable enough to make that much of a commotion, in a way that she would make in the wild to see a favorite companion, they are doing something right. That was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced in a zoo. Little did I know that this small moment would only be the first of many more.

The elephant house was great, but it was also crowded with our entire class. We made a pact to come back later, when most people would be gone. We had already planned to stay until close, so that would not be an issue. Exiting the building, we headed down the African Trail and saw antelopes, an okapi (the closest living relative to the giraffe), and some African dogs tearing away at a hunk of meat. Again, I have never really seen an exhibit where the animals are given meat and actively eating it like they would in the wild—together, and with excitement.

We then moved on to see the gorillas, the other habitat that Gerry was proud of. Though all the gorillas were indoors waiting to be fed, their outdoor enclosure looked just as good as the elephants’. There were trees, little grassy patches, and lots of room to move. I was very impressed. One of the gorillas even slept like me—on her back, with her arms crossed over her chest and her feet tucked together. So cute!

After that, we looked in on some rhinos, zebras, giraffes, and ostriches. Again, these habitats were big, open, and natural. The giraffes, zebras, and ostriches were all in the same enclosure, but separated into herd like they would be in the wild. They were obviously free to move between the groups, but many of them chose to stay with their own species. This is exactly as it would be in the wild, which was encouraging to see. There was even a baby giraffe roaming around with his mama!

The next great thing that happened was Cecelia the Sea Lion. That was not her real name—we don’t even know if she was actually a girl. But based on how the other sea lions were fighting violently and vocally (more natural sounds!) over the singular rock in the habitat, we figured the one playing with the humans through the glass would be the girl. Anyway, she played with us by swimming back and forth between the two windows, racing us to get to the next one. She would come up close to the glass and blow bubbles at our hands, or press her nose into the glass to squish her nose. At one point, she even turned upside down and hung there and then blew bubbles. It was the sweetest, most unexpected interaction I have ever had at a zoo before. Her eyes were so kind that none of us wanted to leave her.

A quick run through the penguins (complete with mom and two eggs in a nest!) and flamingos led us to the Red Panda habitat. I use the word habitat loosely. There was a wooden fence of normal height, two large bamboo trees for their food and for climbing, and then a little hut in the middle. That was it. They were completely in the open air, no wire fencing or glass to shut them off from the people watching them. I was astonished again. This would never happen in America. But this way, we got to interact with them, watch them move, watch them eat, watch them climb around and live life—all while only five feet away from them. It was so cool to be that close and really understand an animal. I never had a particular affinity toward red pandas until I got to see one move around right in front of me. That is what zoos should be for: fostering appreciation and respect for animals we would otherwise have no contact with.

Our trip wound down after that. We visited the Reptile House, said hello to some monkeys and sloths, and then stopped by the elephants again to say goodbye. Most of the brush was knocked over and eaten, and the bull was now in his separate pen doing some sort of backwards and forwards walking exercise. It was so strange, yet oddly natural. He had some free time, so he was walking around in his own space, doing some workouts. Around 6, we hopped on the LUAS and got back to the hotel just a little late for dinner. Overall, I thought this was a very successful day. Unexpectedly great, too.

I wish I would have had that kind of zoo experience when I was younger. I always thought I hated zoos because they are like traps for animals. But when I see animals as happy as those in the Dublin Zoo, it gives me hope that zoos can also be a place of learning, development, and engagement. With the help of great habitats and healthy, naturally behaving animals, maybe the US can one day have programs as prosperous as the one in Dublin.

No comments:

Post a Comment