Zoo shares intimate views of natural world

The zookeeper picked up a pinkish blob from a small plastic bowl and extended it toward a half-submerged log along an artificial riverbank.

As a pair of young children stared at the indoor pool, their faces pressed against the glass panel, a  head stretched out from under the log and a turtle eagerly snapped up the zookeeper’s proffered meal.

“It’s hiding right now, but it’s there,” zookeeper Maria Siger told the children. “I’m feeding it dead rats. There’s also a stingray swimming around here; do you see it?”

This is the Atlantic Forest exhibit at Zoo Miami, part of the Amazon and Beyond section.   Zoo Miami opened in 1980 with 12 exhibits that were moved from Crandon Park on Key Biscayne. Now the 740-acre zoo has more than 100 exhibits and more than 2,000 animals in its care, including the rare white tiger, greater one-horned Indian rhinoceros and the Asian small-clawed otter.

Separated into four different habitats – Asia, the Americas, Africa and Amazon and Beyond– Zoo Miami is designed so people  trekking through the park can wander from one section  to another as if they were on a nature trail. It is the largest zoological garden in Florida. Many people get around on rented four-wheeled, pedal-power buggies with brightly colored fabric sun roofs. The zoo calls the buggies Safari Cycles.

Most of the animals live in open-air enclosures. Fences and ditches separate the animals from the winding trails of the zoo, allowing visitors to observe from a close distance as giraffes and fiercer beasts roam their grounds and spider monkeys swing from trees.

Cold-blooded animals like the poison dart frog and the bushmaster snake live indoors in air conditioning behind glass panels.

But the natural setting is one of the things that makes Zoo Miami special. It is the only zoo in the continental United States with a subtropical climate. And it specializes in animals from the tropics and sub-tropics.

The zoo has received several awards, including the prestigious Edward H. Bean Award for its breeding programs.

The zoo is family-oriented. Nicole Gualandi and her two children have season passes. “It’s a great way to spend the day,” Gualandi said while keeping an eye on her children, who were busy cooling off under a mist machine puffing out clouds of moisture.  “It exposes them to the animals,” Gualandi said. “The zoo has a great design, especially the new Amazon region; it has a lot of shade.”

Her children, sufficiently soaked by the mist machine, quickly turned their attention to the main attractions. “I like the animals best,” said Kiernan, 8. His sister Marian, 5, nodded in agreement.

While children and a few older people enthusiasts move from one exhibit to the other, parents often sit and take advantage of the air-conditioning in the indoor exhibits.

One of the attractions is the zoo keepers who clean exhibits and feed animals throughout the day.  Dave Jimenez, one of the zoo keepers, is in charge of the Cloud Forest exhibits. One day as he cleaned the home of the snakes, visitors snapped photos of him at work.

“There are about 19 exhibits here that I clean and feed,” he said. “Today I’m covering the Atlantic exhibit. There’s cleaning, spraying down exhibits, feeding the animals. I’m just filling in for the day” On the Atlantic exhibit.

The animals seem unconcerned as the zookeepers go about their work. ”One of the things Zoo Miami has is diversity of animals,” Jimenez said. “We have large hoofed animals, quite a collection of them. One of the things we’re lucky to have is reptiles.”

Many of the zoo’s exhibits are interactive.  Audio boxes mimicking animal cries. Children feed the giraffes and the pelicans.     In the heat of Miami much of the year,  the animals have an air of languor.  “Is he breathing?” asked one of child as he looked at a warthog lying prone in the muddy banks of its enclosure.

In the hottest part of the day, most of the animals hang out in bushes and trees and are sometimes not so easy to see. The bottom line is that the cooler months are often best for a visit to Zoo Miami. #


At A Glance

Getting there:  By car, take the Florida Turnpike Extension to Coral Reef Drive (SW 152nd Street). Go west the short distance to the entrance to Zoo Miami on the south side of the street.

By public transportation, take Metrorail to Dadeland South Station. There catch the Coral Reef Max bus (No. 252). The ride takes about 20 minutes. Get off at the second stop after the bus enters the Zoo Miami parking lot. The entrance to the zoo is a short walk away. A $7 EASY Card allows you to travel on Miami-Dade Transit for the entire day.

Zoo ticket: $15.95 (ages 13 and up), $11.95 (ages 3 to 12), free (Members and children ages 2 and under).

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