Zoopendous adventure

UP FRONT

Exploration: Animals stay cool and people have a hot time on a summer safari at the zoo.

July 29, 1999|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Travel to the steamy jungles of Africa, explore mysterious caves where bats fly, see snakes slither, cross lily pads and hanging bridges, chat with a chimp, watch polar bears swim the backstroke, conquer a 24-foot Siberian summit, and learn about vanishing bog turtles -- all in one day, and without needing a passport.

Through Sept. 6, explorers of all ages can discover where the wild animals live, then meet up with domestic critters at the Children's Zoo during ZOOfari at the Baltimore Zoo.

Equipped with an adventure guide that is distributed to visitors ages 2-15 to help them identify animals, explorers embark on their quest by following the colorful signs of ZOOfari's mascot, Paco the macaw. The guide is also packed with animal facts, a full-color poster and activities to complete at home.

Samantha Amberg, 8, and her 6-year-old sister, Lilly, of Gaithersburg, are checking out the adventure guide during a recent ZOOfari with their mother, Marisa Amberg, and grandmother Catherine Amberg.

It's a scorching summer day, and the sisters are trying to stay cool with a battery-operated misting fan. They are waiting at the Kodiak bear cave for the start of a Keeper Encounter that will give them the inside scoop on one of their favorite animals. Eighteen different encounters are scheduled at selected times throughout the week to bring visitors face-to-face with the zoo crew and the animals and plants they care for.

But before zoo keeper Bette Jorden explains the habits of the Kodiak bear, who was born 26 years ago in the same cave he's occupying now, she tosses him a treat. It's a fish-sicle -- mackerel frozen in a block of ice. Junior swiftly slides his 10-foot, 1,100-pound body into the water, lifts the fish-sicle with his paws and chomps down. In no time, he's ready for a second helping of the yummy, cooling treat.

"Notice how he brings the fish up with his claws," explains Jorden. "That's how Kodiak bears hunt in the wild. They will not dive for the fish. They don't like to get their head and ears wet."

Samantha, her sister and the rest of the audience also learn that a big part of a Kodiak bear's diet is dead fish that have washed onto the shore.

Samantha was most impressed with the fact that bears in captivity don't need to be fattened up for the winter months.

"I learned that they don't hibernate in captivity. ... That's pretty neat. I thought all bears hibernated," says Samantha.

Education is at the forefront of the Baltimore Zoo's mission.

"Getting close to a tiger, you can't help but be thrilled," says zoo director Roger C. Birkel. "The next step is to understand wildlife and wild places. The combination of compassion and cognitive learning is a very important education component."

A bit of wilderness

The Baltimore Zoo in Druid Hill Park is a 186-acre oasis of exhibits and wilderness in an urban setting. Founded in 1876, it's the third oldest zoo in the United States.

The zoo is home to more than 2,000 animals, but they aren't the only living inhabitants.

"We are blessed with a beautiful campus. The hills and valleys are covered with a variety of mature trees and flowers," says Birkel. "We would like to move the zoo forward and include a botanical garden."

Plants native to Maryland's wetlands play an integral part in the creation of the zoo's newest exhibit, a home for the threatened bog turtle. The Maryland native, one of the world's rarest and smallest turtles -- about four inches long when fully grown -- is getting harder and harder to find.

"One of the top 10 on the world's vanishing species list, which includes the Siberian tiger, lives right here in our own backyard. Maryland contains one-third of all the bog turtle population," explains Anthony Wisnieski, curator of herpetology.

Poaching and destruction of the turtles' habitat -- the wetlands created by springs at the beginning of streams that lead to the Chesapeake Bay -- are the biggest threats to bog turtles, says Wisnieski.

The new exhibit, scheduled to open mid-August in the zoo's Maryland Wilderness section, was created in an area of the zoo that was a natural wetland before being converted into a pond and filled with non-native vegetation about 100 years ago. The plants were removed and the original wetland was re-created about a year ago, complete with native plants.

Though the main attraction will be nine bog turtles, the exhibit will also highlight vanishing wetland habitats and their relationship to the bay, says Wisnieski.

"How the exhibit will impact future conservation efforts in Maryland will be studied by Dr. Don Forester and his biology students at Towson University," explains Wisnieski. Tiny radio transmitters placed on the bog turtles will enable the research team to track the turtles' location and monitor how they are adapting to the restored wetland habitat.

Interpretive signs will explain the exhibit. And there will be plenty of activities for children to enjoy as they learn about the bog turtles' habitat.

Staying cool

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