Accepting the purpose of city zoos

Posted Sept. 24, 2009, at 9:27 p.m.

It was a bright, warm September day in Baltimore — far too gorgeous a Sunday afternoon to stay inside. So when a group of my friends, all biology students, were assigned to go to the Maryland Zoo, I decided to tag along.

The Maryland Zoo is located in the heart of Baltimore City. An odd and somewhat startling departure from the west-side city streets, the zoo takes up more than 160 acres, holding more than 1,500 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and represents nearly 200 species. The zoo is divided into two principle sections, an “African Journey” section and the “Maryland Wilderness” section. We began with the Maryland Wilderness: exhibits of wildlife native to the zoo’s home state.

At first, the whole concept seemed so silly to me. Growing up in Holden, Maine, far from zoos, I saw plenty of my state’s wildlife — in its natural habitat, not in a cage. Owls, turkeys, skunks, porcupines, deer, even the occasional moose wandered through my neighborhood. Fox cubs played in our driveway in the spring. An eagle nested nearby. For me, being introduced to my home state’s wildlife didn’t involve going to a zoo. It only meant going outside.

With an initial air of superiority, I walked along the dirt pathways past the fenced exhibits of “Maryland Wilderness” in Baltimore. The city people around me shrieked and ogled at the sight of Maryland’s foxes, otters and snakes. An atrium housed ducks, a common raven and one long-eared owl; double doors and mesh held the native species carefully within the confines labeled by plaques.

Yet, as I watched people’s reactions to these “commonplace” animals, I felt my scornful exterior slowly melt. Small children were transfixed at the sight of a red fox. The otter exhibit featured a tunnel with windows for viewing their underwater habitat; young and old alike were enchanted as the otters dove and swam at eye level. I began to remember the “kept” wildlife in my own early education: a school trip to the fishery, a visit to a marine biology center where I saw my first sea cucumber in a tank. Once a game warden brought an owl into our class; I still remember how she held up his wings so that we could see the stripes and the funny way he turned his neck.

Just as often, though, I was lucky enough to see wildlife actually in the wild, even when on school field trips. We took a bus to the beach to look at tidal pools. I learned about different species of trees when my second grade class trooped outside to the woods just outside of the Holden elementary school.

Kids growing up in inner city Baltimore haven’t had that experience. Seeing the otters, foxes and turtles of the “Maryland Wilderness” is pretty exciting — and important. As uncomfortable as I am with the cages, the zoo might be the best way to make people aware of what’s outside the city limits.

While touring the African side of the zoo, all of my internal deprecation evaporated as the little kid in me took over. Giraffes, leopards and okapis appeared as foreign and magical to me as the fantastical creatures found on the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. A bird with a plume of feathers standing up on his head rivaled the mohawk sported by a nearby teenager. A leopard slinked around with the agility of a ballet dancer. A colorful stork held my attention for minutes. “If an engineer drew up plans for that bird,” one of my friends observed, “I’d tell them to go back to school … that bird will never stay upright. But look at it! It’s so graceful.”

I feel ambiguous about zoos. The Baltimore zoo was established in 1876, the time of global expansion when we still believed that the world was a thing to be collected and owned. But the zoos of today are also about education, inspiration and awareness.

A keeper stopped to talk to me about her job and the importance of people connecting with wildlife. “Our mission is to try to engage people through personal encounters with animals — the kinds of experiences that can foster lifelong relationships with nature — give people an idea of how cool the natural world is and what’s out there.”

Experiencing nature is something I’ve taken for granted. But for Baltimore children, seeing a red fox, an otter or even a long-eared owl is as much of a fantastical, Dr. Seuss-esque experience as watching a giraffe munch leaves is for me.

We left the zoo when it closed, following the parents and the tired kids back into the city streets. It’s hard to imagine growing up in a more different place from Maine than Baltimore.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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