By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
June 10, 2021
How many of you have been to the Jacksonville Zoo lately? I must admit that it has been a few years since I visited but recently my friend Susan Gallion and I took a ride down Heckscher Drive to check it out. As some of you know I’m a former zoo professional, an international wildlife expert, and an animal and nature lover for sure. And wow, this visit to the zoo impressed me on all scores.
Due to Covid-related capacity restrictions, we had to purchase our tickets online and a limited number of visitors were allowed each day, making for intimate encounters with the zoo residents and staff. Although explanatory signs and even most directional ones were missing, there were scores of zoo staff and volunteers around to tell us more about the animals. And even the regular zoo visitors helped in that regard.
For instance, Susan and I noticed a mother with three preschoolers up close against a window to the bonobo exhibit. Bonobos are small apes that are similar to chimpanzees but have social behaviors even closer to us human apes. We all were transfixed by a young bonobo that sat next to the kids on the other side of the glass, then rushed off into the large natural display to grab a sheet that he put over his head to run back again to clapping and laughing kids. Soon he also picked up a big ball and carried it to the window along with his sheet. When the family moved to another window, so did the ape, seeming intent on continuing his game with them. It turns out this family are members and they visit this ape often, to everyone’s enjoyment.
Later Susan and I were looking through another window at a family group of Asian small-clawed otters all sleeping at the edge of a concrete pool. I remarked loudly, I guess, that these otters didn’t have enough land area. I used to be the Studbook and Species Survival Plan coordinator for this species for US zoos and was attuned to their needs. But, luckily, a passing zookeeper heard me and filled me in. These otters have a giant enclosure with outside areas that they share with Visayan warty pigs, viewable from many vantage points besides this one window. It was the largest and best furnished natural display for Asian otters that I’ve seen anywhere! And, according to the keeper, the otters and pigs routinely interact with each other too, adding more interest to their captive life as well.
Shortly thereafter Susan and I found this same keeper and a few others brushing these pigs, while telling us all about them. The pigs loved it, as evidenced by their grunts of pleasure, and then there flops onto their sides to get their bellies brushed too. It was fun for all of us, keepers, visitors and pigs alike.
In the Range of the Jaguar exhibit a family group of young giant otters were also frolicking and playing in the water, chasing each other, and bothering their parent that was trying to nap in the sunshine, out of their splash zone. The otters were bred at this zoo, from a wild-caught blind orphaned otter that was raised in Guyana and a female otter from the Miami Zoo, the second litter for this pair, and a remarkable achievement for this species anywhere in captivity.
Lots of other mammals caught our attention too. A pair of jaguars were housed in adjacent enclosures, but the female near us was giving the “cat in heat” cry, probably explaining their separation. Giraffes were available for feeding, elephants roamed a large yard, lions, tigers, bears, and all the usual characters were there too. The ring tailed lemurs had a high climbing tower and aerial pathways around a large area. They captured our attention with their loud yelps, which, a volunteer explained, was happening when one lemur touched another when it didn’t want to be bothered. You name it, it was all happening at this zoo.
I was only able to cover the mammals in this column but stay tuned, there is a lot more to tell about the birds, both wild and captive, and the lush continent-specific landscaping throughout the grounds. The Jacksonville Zoo is a great place to visit, and to visit often. Check it out yourself and you won’t be sorry.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D. is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations at [email protected]