Humans can learn a lot from animals. From survival mechanisms to familial bonding, many of the world’s secrets can be discovered through getting to know the animal friends which share this planet- up close and personal. When push comes to shove, all living creatures have a lot in common.
In a digitally-advanced and obsessed era, videos and an abundance of information are just a few clicks away. However, there is no replacement for the feel of an elephant’s trunk or watching intently as an orangutan grips each tree limb with ease. And in Texas, with a celebrated zoo in nearly every metropolitan area, there is no excuse for missing out.
The Chance to Learn from a Zookeeper
“Even though people can find whatever they want online, it just isn’t the same as experiencing it in person,” said Victoria Miller, a keeper with the Houston Zoo. “You get a rare chance to get up close and see animals not found in Texas as well as experience all of the sights, sounds, and even smells that the animals provide.”
Miller stressed that keepers are always happy to talk to patrons who are interested in their animals.
“I have met a lot of fans of some of the animals I take care of, and it is always a treat to point out a few of their more unique individual characteristics to people that may not know what to look for,” Miller said.
Guest favorites at the zoo tend to be the bigger animals like the gorillas, elephants, giraffes, lions, and tigers. Miller understands that sometimes the smallest animals, like the leaf cutter ants, are most interesting to watch.
Across the state, keepers like Miller work hard to serve as the daily liaison between the animals and their guests.
“Zookeepers work primarily outdoors year round, whether it is 100 degrees plus in the Texas summers or below freezing and raining in the winter months,” said Patti Clark, with the Austin Zoo. They are truly passionate about what they do, she explained.
Miller noted a typical day for a zookeeper could have an extensive range. “This might include animal exams, veterinary visits, meetings, animal training, and keeper talks,” she said.
A Home for Animals
Clark explained the zookeeper also works on training with some of their animals each day. “Training challenges the animal to think and to learn behaviors that make it easier for our zookeepers and veterinarians to examine an animal without needing to sedate the animal,” Clark said. “Zookeepers wrap up their day with writing detailed summaries of their work and their animals’ responses.”
As for the animals, their job is to be loved and cared for.
Many of the daily activities for keepers are similar. However, regardless of location, Texas zoos each have unique and remarkable features and experiences to offer their guests.
Lone Star Highlights
As the only zoo between Ft. Worth and the 12-hour drive to El Paso, the Abilene Zoo plays a significant role in Texas animal education. Active in animal conservation efforts, the Abilene Zoo hosts more than 36 endangered animals which are part of international breeding programs to save their species
The zoo celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2016. It plans to open its new $3.8 million Giraffe Safari exhibit soon. The Abilene Zoo was one of the first zoos in the country to include a giraffe feeding experience for guests. Guests can also expect to see Colobus monkeys, Red River hogs, small antelope called blue duikers, secretary birds, and large tortoises.
The Austin Zoo functions primarily as a rescue zoo, assisting animals in need. “Austin Zoo provides a forever home to the animals who come to reside with us,” Clark said. “Each of our animals has a compelling back story of what we know about their life before they came to Austin Zoo and how they came to live at Austin Zoo.”
The zoo serves as a safe haven or second home for many creatures. Some worked as laboratory research animals until they were retired. Others are animals that other zoos no longer wanted in their collections or from facilities that closed. Some were seized through court proceedings for illegal ownership or animal abuse.
Named as a top zoo in the nation by Family Life magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, the Ft. Worth Zoo is home to 7,000 native and exotic animals. Opened in 1909, the Ft. Worth Zoo is also the oldest in the state of Texas.
One of its most recent additions, the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) is a premier herpetarium, bringing guests eye to eye with exotic and endangered species from across the world. The zoo’s website notes “each element of MOLA is a piece of art — from the lifelike, hand-painted murals on the exhibit walls to the 5,000 reptiles, amphibians, and more that are living, breathing works of art.” Reaching 30,000-square-feet the MOLA facility hosts more than 250 amphibian and reptile species and more than 5,700 animals.
Deemed the “Best African Exhibit in U.S.” by The Zoo Book: A Guide to America’s Best, the Dallas Zoo’s Africa section spans 36 developed acres and includes the Giants of the Savanna, Don Glendenning Penguin Cove, the Gorilla Trail, and a Monorail Safari through the six habitats of Africa.
Holiday and educational events fill the zoo’s calendar. Visitors can enjoy temporary exhibits, which in the recent past have included LEGO bricks and robotic dinosaurs of the Jurassic. There are also longstanding staples such as the Dallas Zoo Twilight Safari Night Hike or the Backstage Safari show.
The El Paso Zoo educates over 350,000 zoo visitors annually, including thousands of students visiting the zoo on field trips. Known for its Asia exhibit, guests meet endangered Asian elephants, siamangs, Malaysian tapirs, and critically endangered Malayan tigers, Sumatran orangutans, the Amur leopard, and Przewalski’s horses.
For those interested in the ins and outs of zoo life, the El Paso Zoo offers a “Behind the Scenes Tour.” The tour features a one-on-one visit with an expert zoo keeper, viewing of food and diet preparation, and a visit to the on-site Animal Medical Center.
In partnership with the surrounding community, the Houston Zoo is home to many local conservation projects. “By working with NASA we are able to have more space and habitat for our Attwater Prairie Chicken conservation work, and through our partnership with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) we are able to inform the public about threats to sea turtles and help rehabilitate injured or sick sea turtles in the Kipp Aquarium at the zoo,” Miller said.
One of the zoo’s animal enrichment activities involves sparking their creative side. Since many of the animals seem to enjoy painting (non-toxic) on canvases, the organization has harnessed this as a fundraiser. It sells paintings created by the zoo’s animals to interested parties. Paintings come unframed with the animal’s bio and picture.
The San Antonio Zoo is another one of Texas’s best. What sets this zoo apart more than its wonderful exhibits is its very own smartphone app. In a quest to create the ultimate zoo experience, the app boasts features such as Friend Finder (where one can track friends and family at the zoo). The ever helpful, “Mark My Spot” reminds guests where they parked. It also has animal information, menus, fun facts, conservation information, and even links to the zoo’s social media.
The zoo’s butterfly garden has also taken flight, with between 15 and 30 species of butterflies that “delight guests through intimate interaction.” With one of the world’s largest bird collections, the zoo’s Hixon Bird House opened in 1966 and features a simulated tropical rain forest and free-flying birds.
The Cameron Park Zoo in Waco offers families an incredible year-round wildlife experience. The zoo is home to over fourteen different special exhibits and more than 1,000 animals. These animals range from local Texas species to exotic and endangered specimens. Some of the most popular exhibits include Gibbon Island, the bald eagle habitat, and the African Savanna.
Cameron Park Zoo also boasts the Brazos River Country exhibit allowing guests a look into what life was like for early Spanish explorers. The exhibit includes a large aquarium, replica shoreline, and a number of different mini-exhibits showcasing the different biomes of the state.
The Gladys Porter Zoo was actually a gift to the city of Brownsville by the Earl C. Sams Foundation in 1972. An average of 432,000 visitors explore the 31 acre property annually. Many of these visitors are often surprised at the amount of local wild birds casually roaming the grounds. In fact, the zoo prides itself on being “not just a collection of animals. It is a sanctuary, where wild animals find refuge and often places to nest.”
Popular exhibits include the Bear Grottos, a free-flight aviary, and one devoted to Komodo dragons. Patrons enjoy photo opportunities of loved ones getting close to th giant creatures at the Giraffe Feeding Landing Exhibit. At the Russell Aquatic Ecology Center, zoo goers will find everything from jellyfish to sharks alongside underwater flora local to south Texas. The stingray touch tank is a big hit here as well.