Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Day at Toronto Zoo

Zoos are controversial places these days, though not to the same extent as theme-park aquariums. For me, the benefits of a well-managed zoo outweigh the negatives. Without them, many species that are critically endangered or extinct in the wild would be gone forever. Modern civilization may be better than asteroids at killing off other species, but late 19th and 20th century creature comforts conversely gave us time to develop conservational values that are unique in human history. Ancient peoples living communally in nature didn't try to save the moa, the mammoth, or trees on Easter Island. At least we feel guilty about extinction now when clearing habitat for malls.

Toronto Zoo is divided into a separate Discovery Zone for children and six loosely-themed "zoogeographic regions" or domains representing regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Eurasia, Indo-Malaya, Tundra Trek, and the Canadian Domain. There is a lot to see, but the typical visitor--who doesn't read every informative sign in depth--can get through most of the displays in 5-6 hours. Unless bear connoisseurs, North American visitors who have been outside of a city may wish to skip much or all of the Canadian domain. I've seen enough deer looming in my headlights.

What to Bring

Essentials at the zoo include sunscreen (there are lots of shady areas, however) and a water bottle. Good footwear is a must. Toronto is one of the world's largest zoos by area, and 10 kilometers of walking trails sprawl over more than 700 acres. Wooded buffers between the different world zones and undeveloped open areas give it a spacious feel I haven't experienced at many other zoos. On a hot day, a bathing suit and towel might be a consideration to enjoy the Discovery Zone "Splash pad."

There is a lot of green space in the zoo at Toronto, particularly between the zoogeographic domains. Abundant maples will display spectacular autumn colors in late September and October. And the shade was a welcome respite from the sun.

Have a picnic

Each regional theme zone has its concession areas offering the usual, overpriced assortment of non-nutritive snacks. We caved at the beavertail stand in the Discovery Zone. What's not to like about a splash of lemon on a doughy pastry sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, pure Canadiana worth all of the $5.19 price. If you want to save a few dollars, bring your own lunch and refreshments. The open concept of the zoo means you are never far from a private picnic table. A few picnic areas are reserved for corporate events or parties.

Oh, and there are animals

The zoo claims to house at least 5000 animals from over 450 species. There seem to be at least that many naked mole rats. The current centerpiece is a panda exhibit on loan from China. The fuss has died down since the 2013 opening, and long lines to see Er Shun and Da Mao have since dissipated. This is as well, for in our two passes separated by several hours, the only thing that distinguished the pandas from two disheveled carcasses was an occasional ear twitch. Pandas make sleepy lion prides look like nervous caffeine addicts, The pandas will reside in Toronto before heading to Calgary in 2018. I wish I emigrated so infrequently.

As with all zoos, there are the standard free-roaming peacocks. Enclosures for the other convicts seem generally spacious, though we observed a few of the big cats (jaguars) pacing back and forth, apparently a sign of stress or boredom. There are no elephants; following a series of premature expirations, the survivors left for warmer climes in California amidst a media circus. The largest remaining residents are rhinos and hippos. A new enclosure for giraffes is scheduled to open in 2014.

Many of the exhibits reasonably recreate natural habitats. But the site of arctic animals strolling green pastures in summer sun breaks the illusion.

The kids, ours and other's, always seemed most interested in the indoor pavilions, where all the venomous or oozing creatures are housed, or those that swim. The Great Barrier Reef exhibit is very good for a place thousands of miles from tropical seas. Kids also gravitate to baby animals and, maybe just because we visited in spring, Toronto zoo has more infant animals than any other zoo I've been to. Myself, I always like the permanently cute and playful animals like meerkats, lemurs, and otters. Adolescent polar bears lose their cuddle quickly.

Ironically, what most captured my imagination was a Baltimore oriole, not a display but a wild visitor, passing through just like me.

Tired of a Looking at Animals?

The leafy setting of the Rouge River Valley hints this would be a worthy place to visit for autumn color. It's easy to burn extra dollars beyond the cost of admission. The park also offers a variety of pay-for-play activities including a carousel, camel rides, a zoomobile that circumnavigates the park, and a Gorilla Climb Ropes Course. The adjacent, real gorillas may find it entertaining to see how far their harnessed cousins have fallen in gymnastic climbing ability, maybe almost as much fun as we have watching them nonchalantly defecate on unsuspecting family members below while savoring choice nose pickings.

A few ways to separate yourself from $8 each.
The zoo obligingly facilitates separation of your wallet from its burdensome money. Each world zone has its own strategically-placed gift shop, with overpriced, imported trinkets at child's eye-level. Pandas aren't the only thing here from China. We left with a stuffed cousin.

The best things in life remain "free" (with the price of admission). My youngest son had the most fun at Splash Island in the Discovery Zone, a perfect way to cool off after a warm day and lots of walking.

Getting There and Getting In

Westbound or Eastbound, take Highway 401 to exit 389 (Meadowvale Road in Scarborough). Parking is $10; pay for the pass at the time of ticket purchase. Standard entry fees are $18 for ages 3-12 and $28 for those over 13. Annual family membership is $195 (all prices are inclusive of HST). Summer hours are 9 am to 7 pm daily; extended hours are offered for zoo members.