Thursday, August 23, 2007

Article: Lessons from the Austin Zoo

Prairie Dog at the Austin Zoo (looks a little fat)

I often drive the stretch of Hwy. 290 leading from Dripping Springs to Austin. Along that road is a sign that always catches my attention, an arrow pointing down Circle Drive with the words “Austin Zoo.” I love animals and I love zoos but somehow I never had the time to stop. This weekend, I decided to finally go and to bring my son and his family along.

Celeste, who is eight, was excited about going to the zoo. She’s a cat person and really wanted to see the big cats, especially the tigers. The rest of us wanted to see the pair of adult capybaras the zoo was reputed to have.

Zoos these days all have missions. Of course one mission is to educate the public about the beauty and diversity of life on Earth. In addition to that mission, the Austin Zoo is a rescue zoo. Over 90 percent of their 300 animals have been rescued. A sign at the entrance admonishes visitors not to keep exotic animals as pets. Well that put a stop to me telling them I have a pet capybara.

Still, I understand their point. The zoo gets around 200 requests per year to take unwanted animals. People don’t always consider the long term commitment they are entering into when they get a pet. Even with dogs and cats, few consider whether the animal will fit into their lives in the five, ten or even fifteen years that the animal will live. Local animal shelters are full of abandoned pets who have outlived their owners’ interest.

Responsible pet ownership also involves selecting a pet that you have the time and facilities to care for. Most people can accommodate a dog or cat but not many could care for a bear, a tiger or an anaconda. Surprisingly, according to the Austin Zoo web site, there are more tigers in Texas than anywhere else in the world. Some are in zoos, some in “roadside attractions,” some are pets and others are at game ranches waiting to be “hunted.”

Those are the obviously bad choices for pets. There are less obvious ones. I might as well go through my own pets as examples.

Firstly, I have horses. Horses aren’t like most pets, they retain value throughout most of their lives. But horses live a very long time and toward the end they typically can’t be ridden. I lost a horse this summer who was twenty-nine years old. She’d had only very light use the last five years of her life, occasionally taking small children for short rides. I have the land to retire a horse. People who are spending $300 per month for board are much less likely to keep a horse past its useful life. Those horses end up going to slaughter.

I also have reptiles. For my son Philip’s first birthday, I got him a young leopard tortoise. It’s a gift that lasts a lifetime. Leopolda is now at least twenty-eight years old and weighs fifty pounds. I have structured my yard around a large tortoise. I have a good sturdy fence she can’t see through, a nice pond for water, no poisonous plants, and several fruit trees. In 1989 I gave Philip a Florida kingsnake. I still have that snake eighteen years later.

Before I bought my baby capybara, I considered whether I have the facilities for her. I have the nicely fenced yard that I built for Leopolda, including a pond. I want Caplin to be an indoor / outdoor pet but if that doesn’t work out and if she can’t just stay in the yard, I have a couple of pastures with wire mesh fence that I can configure for capybara use.

So we went to the Austin Zoo to take a look at their capybaras and compare their behaviors to Caplin’s. We wondered if she’d still be as friendly when she gets big and will she still make the cute noises. We ran into the general curator, Jim Carroccio, out at the tiger enclosure and asked about the capybaras. Jim told us that the zoo’s pair had died of old age a couple of years previously. We asked about capybara personality and Jim characterized them as “cow-like.” I think Caplin is going to prove him wrong. She’s already got a ton of personality

Photo: My baby capybara, the instigation for the zoo trip.
Photo: Leopolda, a leopard tortoise I've had for 27 years.
Photo: Many of the zoos animals are rescued, like this blind leopard.
Photo: Celeste taking a turn at Duck, Duck, Goose.
Photo: Austin zoo scenic.

1 comment:

kizzy said...

what kind of duck is that?