It's all Happenin' at the Zoo

                                                    Pet Tales
                                                           by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
It's All Happenin' at the Zoo

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Toronto Zoo. The purpose of the occasion was to film some segments for Pet Tales on television, seen on Cogeco Channel 23. The Zoo is one of my favourite places to visit and this year's trip was no exception. Although the journey is just a short one from Burlington, in some respects it was a trip around the world.

I began the day in the Australasian Pavilion. One of the things you can do here is enter a fenced enclosure and walk along a path amidst kangaroos, emus and wallabies. It is called the Aussie Walkabout. It reminded me of our trip to Australia last October. If you travel 'down under', it is most likely you will see these Aussie animals in a very similar way in their native country. Contrary to some people's belief, kangaroos are not hopping down the main street in towns all over Australia. Kangaroos are most active at dawn and dusk and are relatively inactive in the middle of the day and night. They spend about 7-14 hours per day grazing. But, they rest during the day in the shade of woodlands during the day and move out onto the grasslands to feed. I had to get up very early in the morning in a rural area to see wild kangaroo. You must approach them with great stealth and still they are likely to scatter and hop away at great speed before you get very close to study them. As a result there are many wildlife parks and sanctuaries throughout Australia that offer viewing of this fascinating animal just like the exhibit in Toronto does.

Next in the Americas Pavilion I learned about flamingoes. This regal and statuesque appearing bird was in brilliant pink plumage as we watched the flock stroll gracefully around their pool on their stilt-like legs. This particular species is native to Central and South America. Flamingoes have an ability to eat their food in a way similar to that of baleen whales. Flamingoes drag their bills upside down through the salty or brackish waters they prefer. The upper jaw is lined with rows of slits, and the tongue is covered with fine tooth-like projections. The bill is opened and then as the lower jaw is closed, water and mud are pumped out through the bill slits. The algae rich residue is the food source they enjoy.

From the warm climes that come to mind with flamingoes, I moved on to visit an animal that is native to a very different temperature zone. Tinsel is a reindeer and Scandinavian vistas would normally be home to this animal species. Reindeer are very close relatives to caribou and look much like them. Tinsel is a female reindeer and at this time of year she was actively growing a new set of antlers. While they are growing they have a covering layer of skin called 'velvet'. They are quite sensitive to touch at this stage. Later, when growth is completed, the skin peels off or is rubbed off. Interestingly, reindeer are the only species of deer in which both sexes have antlers. Tinsel is particularly popular at Christmastime when she visits schools in the Toronto area to help children learn all about Santa's favourite animal.  

In the African Savannah area I wanted to see and hear about zebras. Zebras can be thought of as horses that happen to be striped. In the wild they live in social relationships that are very similar to most wild equines. They actually have black stripes on a white background and this very recognizable colour pattern is not only visually dramatic, it has a purpose. In their native habitat they have many predators with whom they must cope. When galloping away fast, in a group, to escape an attack the stripes cause a blurring effect, making it more difficult for the attacker to pick out an individual in the herd.

A gaur is sometimes called the Indian bison. It is a massive member of the cattle family. It was the animal I visited in the Indo-Malaya Pavilion. This large Bovid lives in low lying forest regions in India and South-east Asia.

Finally, in the new Waterside Theatre, who better to represent North America, on my around the world tour, than a bald eagle. It was quite a challenging interview with her handler. This impressively large, beautifully conditioned raptor decided to vocalize, for herself, through much of my chat. Only an arm length away she was screeching in fine form. I'm quite sure she was just emphasizing her happiness with the facts, as I learned how this magnificent fish-eating eagle is making a remarkable comeback in many parts of this continent. It truly is quite a conservation success story. 

I met such friendly animal keepers on my travels, so willing to share their vast knowledge about the animals they respect, enjoy and care for. I saw such wonderful animals in beautiful landscapes so evocative of their native homeland. Let me encourage you to plan such an experience for yourself very soon.