July 12, 2008

Mind Your Manners at the Zoo: Please Don’t Tap on the Glass

By Jan Uebelherr, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 12--Did you hear about the new baby at the zoo? Sure, everyone knows about Mahal the orangutan, and he's a great reason to visit the Milwaukee County Zoo. But there are other animals -- and yes, other zoo babies -- living there.

Consider the 2-month-old baby Baird's tapir named Chac. This animal looks like "a huge pig, with stripes and spots," says Bruce Beehler of the zoo. Currently, Chac the tapir looks like "a walking watermelon" with an attentive mother, he says.

Before you head out to see Chac and Mahal and other zoo attractions, Beehler would like you to keep a few things in mind.

"People should treat these animals like they're walking into the living room of somebody's house," says Beehler, deputy zoo director for animal management and health. "This is their home, this is their space, and we need to respect it."

With that and mind, Beehler and Jennifer Diliberti, the zoo's public relations coordinator, came up with tips on zoo etiquette and making the most of your visit.

Why? "Imagine if somebody's knocking on your living room window all the time," Beehler says. "I think you would be annoyed."

Mind the barriers

Some exhibits have railings for a reason. These animals need a bit of space. Others, like the big cats, don't mind going nose-to-nose with visitors. "That is a special moment for a child -- to be an inch and a half away from a lion" (through glass, of course), Beehler says.

Please don't feed the animals

Their diets are strictly monitored, Diliberti says. Tossing them peanuts or popcorn can cause them digestive problems.

No coins in the fountain

"It's unfortunate that people see a pool and immediately think of a wishing well," says Beehler. Pennies are no longer made of pure copper, he says. The copper coating can erode in water and the heavy metal inside is deadly to animals. "We've had Humboldt penguins die from coin ingestion," he says.

Slow down and watch

Don't try to see everything in a day, Beehler says. "Pick a place, sit down, relax and just watch. See what the animals do."

That's when the real magic happens, Beehler says.

He recently saw a little girl with her hands resting on the glass at the bonobo exhibit. A young bonobo went over and began mimicking her as she raised and lowered her hands.

"So they were palm to palm against the glass."


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