Goin' to the Zoo, Part Two

Jane Hawes

Three years ago, Columbus Parent took readers on a behind-the-scenes trip to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. That story is still one of the most viewed and shared stories in our online archive.

With the opening of the Heart of Africa exhibit in May, we decided this was a perfect opportunity to visit again, this time focusing on this new and unusual exhibit. The exhibit will close Nov. 2 (later if it's a mild fall) and reopen in the spring because most of the species who live there aren't equipped to handle our winters.

Our guide this time was docent Barb Emmets, a retired physical therapist who has become an expert enthusiast about African and Asian species. Along the way, we were fortunate to meet and glean valuable info from other volunteers and employees, including docent Steve McClung, interpreter "Tom S.," curator Adam Felts and CEO Tom Stalf (seriously, all these people were hanging out in the new region that day, educating us and everyone else who visited).

With the addition of the 43-acre Heart of Africa exhibit, the Zoo has tipped in the direction of size that requires transportation options. You could make the healthy hike from the main entrance or you could take the new tram from the first-aid station near the main entrance to a drop-off station next to the Polar Frontier and Heart of Africa entrances.

Well, look at it! It's like nothing you've ever seen at the Columbus Zoo before and it's like nothing that most other zoos offer.

"First of all, it's large," said Emmets, "but so is Africa. You feel very much like you're in Africa."

The focal point is the sprawling "savanna" on which roams a rotating cast of gazelles, cranes, giraffes, ostriches, zebras, wildebeests, kudus, lions and other birds (there's a strategy to which animals go out when, since some of them find each other tasty, explained Emmets). It's home to 165 animals in all.

Giving the animals this much space to wander but still making it possible for humans to get up close represents a quantum shift in zoo-management thinking. Stalf, the Zoo's CEO, said it's about "immersive exhibits" and "connecting people with wild life. It's telling the story of the habitat."

Why does it matter? Well, besides the necessity of treating animals more humanely, Stalf said it's about educating future leaders: "We know the next Jack Hanna resides here in Ohio and she's 5 years old."

These are the first animals you see upon entering the region. Two young dromedary camels - Wimpy and Humphrey - hang out in their yard, while six adult camels take turns providing the camel rides ($7, lasts about three minutes; children ages 2-5 have to go with an adult).

What to expect from a camel? Emmets said: "They're all laidback but they can be stubborn. They can just stop or they'll sway there." Added Felts, the exhibit's curator, "They're way smarter than you think."

Next along the pathway are the lions. You wouldn't know it now, but at first the three lions - two females and one male - had problems adjusting to their spacious new home.

"They didn't realize how close the people are," Emmets said. But the lure of a bush-airplane wing that has air-conditioning running through it helped get the big cats over the initial jitters. Now they're pros and loll luxuriously against the plate glass windows, often planting their paws on the panes, making for great photo opportunities (which the docents are always ready to help with).

A less-expected highlight of the lions' new home is the window it provides on the animals' "romantic" moments: In other words, you may get to witness the lions mating. Columbus's lions "are approved for breeding," Emmets explained, and docents will expertly narrate the proceedings when it happens, but she and fellow docent McClung, a lion specialist, recommend parents make their own choices about what they want their children to see and learn about.

Keeper Talk: 12:30 p.m. The highlight is seeing the lions let the keepers perform health checks on them.

The daily cheetah runs, which take place at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. in the "watering hole" viewing area (about halfway through the region), were an immediate hit and attract big crowds, so big that Emmets recommends getting yourself a spot along the railing 20 to 30 minutes early. You'll get to see the cheetahs (Bella and Bebe) bolt out of a building, chasing a stuffed toy they've been trained with treats to chase. And they take their chasing work very seriously: "Sometimes they cheat and cut across," advised Emmets. One of the zoo's interpreters also provides a very informative narration about the animals.

Tip: If it's raining or the ground is still muddy from a previous rain, they won't stage the cheetah runs (it's kind of hard to take those corners at 60 mph (their top speed) in the mud).

Another tip: If your little ones don't have the patience for staking out an early spot on the railings, be advised that the cheetahs do plenty of running in their regular enclosure and it's very up close and personal.

Though the giraffe "shamba" is the farthest exhibit area from the entrance, Emmets advises going here first, especially if you want to feed the giraffes ($3 with feeding sessions at 9 and 11 a.m., and 1, 3 and 5 p.m.). Each feeding, except the 9 a.m. one, lasts about 30 minutes. The first tends to last 45-60 minutes because it can take visitors a little longer to get there when the main gates open at 9 a.m. If the giraffes balk at eating, the staff won't take your money. And another thing: don't try to hug or touch the giraffes. "Everybody wants to," said Emmets, "but they're not warm and fuzzy."

Tip: Kapawa, the youngest giraffe, is the best one to try feeding: "He's a known eater," said Emmets.