24 May 2007

Exhibit Review: Water's Edge, Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium

This past weekend I went to the opening of the Water’s Edge exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium with my parents who hadn’t been there since I was a child. The experience was a little strange, honestly. I have been to the zoo a number of times since our last family gallivant there, but for some reason, being with them reminded me of all of the exhibits that were there when I was a child that aren’t there now. For the first time ever, I felt that the zoo shrunk in size rather than grown in stature. Chuckles the dolphin was memorialized by a photo and a plaque, but it felt like there were far more animals missing than just Chuckles. The Big cat collection seemed to have shrunk seriously (there isn’t even a mountain lion in the collection, and I simply can’t understand the logic of that). Sadly, the Spider monkeys were no longer there either (When I was in kindergarten, the spider monkeys got loose and one—maybe two—fell into the shark tank, while the others were running around the indoor aquarium like toys gone wild. I distinctly remember hiding in a little alcove, but then getting hysterical when I saw the little monkey in the shark tank! At the time, you walked around the central tank from top to bottom, and you could look down into the tank from a distance. Not so now. That reminds me…there were no tortoises or sea turtles, but there was Spiderman.).

The exhibits themselves were well maintained, and the majority of the exhibits were outdoors and nicely created replications of the animals’ natural habitats. But is that enough? I have a love-hate relationship with zoos, actually. I love to be able to see exotic animals that I would never, in my lifetime, naturally see if zoos weren’t around. Everything about animal nature fascinates me--from the coloring of an animal, to their physical features and how members of the same family are even adapted to their natural habitat. It’s awe inspiring. But then I go to the Pittsburgh Zoo and I see things that upset me far more than they probably should.

The snow leopard is the first animal you encounter when you enter the zoo, and while there technically may be enough room for this cat, and it may be outside, the netting that keeps him caged in is no bigger than a generous sized living room. I’m a fan of the big cats, and seeing that breaks my heart every time. The tigers and lions aren’t much better, truthfully. Granted, the exhibits are much better than they were when I was a child—I still remember the Monkey house, and the Elephant house, and the Big cat house, where the cats were in cages stacked one on top of the other like a prison. There was no green whatsoever. It was more like going to the circus and seeing where they stored the animals than what we imagine a zoo to be now. So comparatively, yes, the zoo is much better and kinder to the animals, but they have nowhere to go but their tiny allotted space.

It’s great to see the penguin encounter (goodness those little guys are active and have serious personality!), but then you come to realize that all of those penguins are in there all the time. They have no sunshine in that room—they’re inside a building! I would be happy to be wrong about this, and I’d be thrilled to find out that they take these penguins on ski trips, and to participate in the Iditarod, but somehow, I don’t even think they get to go build snowmen or dance in the parking lot during the first snowfall.

The animals were all out and all active, so there isn’t a whole lot to complain about, in truth. The zoo was well manicured, and though it was crowded, the only place it became a problem was in the aquarium. It seemed half of Pittsburgh was there to see the new exhibit, and they decided to congregate in the Aquarium for some reason. When we left to make our way to the polar bears, I was surprised by what I saw.

The Water’s Edge exhibit reminds me of something you might find in Epcot rather than a zoo. Once you round the polar bear glass enclosure, complete with waterfall, pool, and a dig yard for them to play in, you come to Pier Town. Pier Town transforms your zoo-going experience to a trip to the less exciting parts of an amusement park—kind of like the train at Kennywood. There are facades of a cannery, a bait and tackle shop, and a “sustainable seafood market.” It looks fantastic, but is all of that necessary for an exhibit of cold weather creatures? The walruses weren’t there yet, but the sea lions and the otters were busy entertaining themselves and the onlookers. Once you make your way through the top portion of Pier Town, you enter the underwater tunnel area.

This is supposed to be the highlight of the exhibit. You’re supposed to be able to see polar bears swimming next to, and over top of you, and the tunnel continues on through the otters and the walrus exhibits. Strangely, the walruses seem to have more room allotted than the polar bears do, but then those big guys weren’t there. While walking through the polar bear tunnel, I noticed a sign containing the following information:

“Why aren’t the polar bears swimming? Polar bears spend only 10% of their days in water.”

Okay. That means that, roughly, only 2.4 hours per day are spent in the water. The zoo is only open from 9-5, significantly limiting the number of hours any visitor actually has to see the bears. This blew my mind. Only 10% of their days in water, and we (Yes, we! Santorum gave $500,000 federal dollars to the Pittsburgh Zoo for this particular installation) spent millions for the slight chance that we get to see the underside of a polar bear in the water? $12.5 million dollars, to be exact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love animals as much, if not more, than the next person, but how does that make sense? For 12.5 million dollars, they could have gotten rid of Pier Town and gave the Polar Bears that much more room to roam. And no, they don’t have “enough space,” not even close. In the wild, polar bears travel between 2,000 – 4,000 miles a year. The Water’s Edge exhibit is nowhere near that.

Perhaps I just don’t understand the rationale of the creators of that exhibit. Oh wait, yes I do. Profit, generating attraction, the whole “bring people in to see the cute cuddly 1,200 pound bears splash in the water (hopefully) from behind 4 inches of glass and we can get more money to bring back the rest of the upper zoo someday” mentality. I wouldn’t say improving the standards of living for the animals is a bad thing, but perhaps the application of the idea has been misplaced somewhere.

The exhibit is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. It’s vibrant, new, clean, unique, and if the bears are in the water it will be the closest most people ever come to a living polar bear. The rest of the park was equally as clean, and the staff was very courteous and helpful. A trip to the zoo is definitely worth it, but if you have half a brain it won’t take you long to start thinking along the same lines that I have.

~D.M. Papuga

1 Comment:

Susan said...

Dawn, I also was surprised at the hoopla over the boardwalk-at-the-amusement-park look of Water Town (or whatever it was called). Definitely not necessary, in my opinion. It struck me, too, that the penguins don't have any sunlight, but they seemed happy enough. (However, how does one know?!) But besides half the city being in the aquarium with us it was a nice day for the zoo outing. We have almost the identical photo of the polar bear spending 10% of his time in the water!