The Zoo in Forest Park

9/6/09 Springfield, Massachusetts

Review: If you are not a proponent of zoos, but are thinking of giving them another try, please do not make The Zoo in Forest Park one of your first destinations.  While the animals are very well attended to (no stronger evidence than through the birth of several babies) this zoo still has many many  reminders of an outdated zoo.  The exhibits are far more like cages than environments, the overall customer services are minimal (ie: the only bathroom is a single porta-potty) and many of the exhibit sight lines are unbearable.  That said, this small little zoo services an important contingent in the city of Springfield  and has a wonderful variety of animals. MassMutual just recently donated a new propane train, a huge money maker for the zoo, so we can hope these profits will go to improving the viewer accessibility to the exhibits.

Photographability: Please.  Black and silver cross hatch fencing is my least favorite. Add that the majority of it was in direct  sun light anchored with eye-level wooden beams from behind another chest level fenced barrier, and it’s about as challenging as it gets.  Big birdcage style enclosures have never been so welcomed, at least you can position animals at the back of the exhibit between the bars. If you’re not trying to take pictures, there are a few exhibits that you can see into, but keep in mind, what’s difficult for a photographer is just as difficult for a camera-less viewer.  Find spots on the shade, the fencing is easier to look through when there isn’t sun glare.  I used a Canon Mark IIn with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with the 1:4 converter and the Canon G7 for a few lizards, snakes and farm animal close ups.

Highlights: The cute baby goats were butting heads and their parents (presumably) were trying to break up the roughhousing before someone got hurt.  The arctic wolves were on the move, it was really interesting to see them at speed. The kangaroos were active, I do enjoy watching them hop. I got kissed on the back of the neck unexpectedly by a frisky camel while I was photographing a llama in the same enclosure, a frightening feeling, I’m not totally sure it’ll stay as a highlight!

Lowlights: The spider monkeys, one of my favorite primates, were entirely invisible because of the sun hitting their enclosure.  I could hear them frolicking, but couldn’t see a thing.  The same was true for a few other animals in equally challenging exhibits.

Pleasant Surprises: The zoo has a really nice collection of very friendly animals for petting, including a Patagonian Cavy; certainly not your typical pig, goat and horse!  I don’t like petting the animals, but I do enjoy watching other people enjoy it!  I was especially intrigued by the donkey.

Would I Return?: Unlikely, unless I hear of major capital improvements, next time I’m in the Springfield area I’ll visit the Lupa Zoo in neighboring Ludlow, Mass., for comparison.

Rating: 2 (out of 10)

The Denver Zoo

8/24/09 Denver, Colorado

ReviewThe Denver Zoo is a wonderful zoo that has undergone some impressive and excellent renovations. While the map is relatively uninformative, the layout is fantastic and moving in the same direction enables an easy viewing of all the exhibits. The zoo is pretty big, and involves lots of walking, but each exhibit is rewarding, even with all their hoof stock, and Predator Ridge is especially fantastic, the rotation of animals in each exhibit is really cool and all the rage in zoo enrichment.

PhotographabilityThe Denver Zoo is excellent in using mostly natural moat barriers for containment. While that sets the animals further back, it does provide for optimal viewing! The older cat house was a bit dark, and the reflections in the scratched plexi left me no choice but to enjoy the animals visually, but the newer glass and better lighting at Rredator Ridge made for an excellent viewing and photographing experience! I used my Canon Mark IIn with the 70-200mm lens and the 1:4 converter. Taking the 1:4 off in the low lighting didn’t make much of a difference, so i opted for the expanded focal length and made do with slow shutters. I used the Canon G7 in the tropics zone and in and amongst the aquariums of fishes, reptiles, and amphibians, its macro is as good as it gets!

Highlights: The Okapi baby was on exhibit, and at just a few months old, was absolutely adorable. The adult Okapis are kind of weird looking and awkward to photograph, so it was really neat to see the mini-version in all its glory and compactness! The bachelor pad of lions were front and center, and had it not been for the guide sending me to its tucked behind the corner locale, I would never have seen the two male lions in all their mane glory!

Lowlights: The hyenas, various cats, and tiger exhibits were VERY dark. They’ve got a nice collection, but viewing through the outdoor exhibits in the old bar cage style is dizzying, and the indoor light and reflections
were frustrating too. That said, once I gave up in photographing the cats, watching the Tiger find its hamburger enrichment in the exhibit was pretty cool. I waited a long time for the polar bear to break its stroke, look at me, and shake off the excess water, not its fault, but that would’ve been nice!

Pleasant Surprises: The enrichment portion at Predator Ridge promised to feature a lion, but when the
keepers showed up, they opted to work with one of the Wild Dogs. Id seen enrichment with cats before, but never seen a wild dog so close. Fascinating creatures and I learned quite a bit about them and appreciate them now for more that just their over-sized ears. The verticle jump on those guys, GOODNESS!!

Would I Return?: Yes, next time I’m in Denver I’ll visit!  I’d say they are due for another Polar Bear Cub, and that would accelerate my return!

Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

82309The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

8/24/2009 Colorado Springs, Colorado

ReviewThe Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is America’s highest zoo at 6800 ft built into the mountains just outside the heart of Colorado Springs. This zoo packs an incredible punch, the lay out is brilliant and the collection is superb! Natural barriers are the most common separator and every exhibit has more than one vantage point. I don’t often find myself in Colorado Springs, but I’d certainly return if I did!

PhotographabilityIt’s almost as if they considered photographers when they designed each exhibit, clean sightlines, front of exhibit enrichment and multiple vantage points. Then again, taking photographers into consideration is the same as considering overall viewing for visitors. Bravo Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, not once did I approach an exhibit and say, ah, no way. The great ape exhibits are bit dark, but the windows were clean, so it’s a challenge but not unsurmountable.

Highlights: NINETEEN giraffes is an unbelieveable highlight. Not even in Kenya had I seen such a large herd. The exhibit was excellent, yard after yard with clumps of giraffes at the front of the exhibit. Giraffe crackers for a reasonable fee were a success, the giraffes approached to eat them. Again, lots of different vantage points and the giraffes were SO close! As if the giraffes weren’t enough, two frolicking zebras were fascinating, and the splashing grizzlies at the front of the exhibit were super exciting to watch. And a baby orangutan too!

Lowlights: I don’t usually read signs, but the signage was pretty awful and often didn’t match up with the animal in the exhibit. There may have been a rotation going on, but that wasn’t clear either, my familiarity with the various primates and other four footed furries prevented my friends from mistaking a coati for a red-ruffed lemur. (the guests aren’t dumb, you’d just think to trust a sign) You look for a coati differently than you’d look for a lemur. I collect flat magnets with the zoo logo, their magnet collection was awful and that was a huge disapointment given the zoo was so excellent.

Pleasant Surprises: The whole zoo was a pleasant surprise! I’d always heard about the Denver Zoo, and this zoo is so close to Denver, yet so different and so good! The giraffes were a pleasant surprise, the website indicates they have giraffes, but nineteen giraffes, WOW. No flamingos, I can’t think of a zoo I’ve been to recently that didnt have flamingos, but I’ve never been to a zoo with 19 giraffes!

Would I Return?: Yes, if I was in Denver visiting friends over a weekday when they had work, sure, but there is so much else to do in Colorado and I’m not sure I’d ask them to drive the 80 miles south to visit again. If you are in Colorado Springs, make it a destination!

Rating: 10 (out of 10)

The Central Park Zoo

41209The Central Park Zoo

4/10/2009 New York, New York

Review: The Central Park Zoo is still my favorite little zoo.  This marks my second review of the zoo visit (read the other review here) I was a volunteer zoo guide there for a few years and I am still quite familiar with the collection.  It is a small zoo, but they have a great collection of big, cool and unique animals.  Every visit is different, and I can still say that with well over 50 visits in my book.  And while I have said in the past that a bird heavy montage signifies a bad visit, that is quite contrary to this zoo, where the included birds are doing something interesting, big, odd, rare, and/or super colorful!

Photographability: When the glass is clean, this zoo can yield some great photos.  You can get up close to most of the animals shooting over natural barriers and the exhibits are free of unnatural sightlines. The Tropics building, while sometimes dark, offers clean tropical backdrops for a host of very cool unique free flight birds. Photographically, this zoo has few challenges, though during the darker parts of the year, the light in the Tropics building and Penguin exhibit are often quality photo prohibitive.  I used my Canon Mark IIn camera with a 70-200mm zoom lens and the 1:4, and the Canon G7 for the macro stuff.

Highlights: The tropics building is still the best I’ve ever seen, and the large bird collection is really growing and impressive.  The new lemur exhibit looks great, even though I only spotted one lemur through the dirty glass.  The new snow leopard won’t open until June, but it looks photo friendly and impressive!

Lowlights: The tropics building was closed for repairs, and while my friend Judy did get me in to see the new lemurs, fun birds and my favorite silvery marmosets, I wasn’t able to spend as much time as I would have liked.  The glass in the penguin exhibit was fogged up and dizzying to look through. 

Pleasant Surprises: I knew the children’s zoo had two baby lambs, but I was pleasantly surprised with how totally adorable they are!  

Would I Return?: Yes, next time I’m back in NYC.

Rating: 8 (out of 10)

The San Francisco Zoo

sanfranzooThe San Francisco Zoo

2/27/2008 San Francisco, California

Review: The San Francisco Zoo is a now infamous zoo with tigers, as well as a zoo with an otherwise nice collection showcased in new and old school exhibits. The african savannah is a relatively new and nicely done exhibit allowing multiple exposures of the same groupings. 

Photographability: Most of the exhibits are pretty easy to work with, a lot of the exhibits allow for multiple views from platforms at various elevations. The now famous tiger exhibit has been updated “for our safety” which has effectively made it difficult to see the tigers.  Moat barriers which provide unobstructed views of the animals are used frequently here, but the moats are pretty wide (for our safety) and the fake stone backgrounds are all too consistent with many exhibits. Rock perches on the back with, pick your sleeping cat, aren’t all that interesting.  The Grizzly Bear exhibit is very cool, and if the sun is right, shooting through the plexiglas at the watering hole is rewarding.  I used my Canon Mark IIn camera and 70-200mm zoom lens with the 1:4. 

Highlights: I love hippos!  They also have great access to several Koalas, a rare sight!

Lowlights: A lot of the exhibits, those that haven’t been renovated, are drab and boring. The baby giraffe wasn’t on exhibit.

Pleasant Surprises: This was my first visit to the San Francisco Zoo, it was as much fun to see the trail of terror from the 12/25/2007 Tiger incident with friends that were there that day, as it was the collection.

Would I Return?: Yes, I already have plans to in April 2009.

Rating: 6 (out of 10)

The Oakland Zoo

oaklandzooThe Oakland  Zoo

2/28/2008 Oakland, California

Review: The Oakland Zoo is a nice little zoo with a really great flying fox exhibit. The layout is easily meander-able, but very hilly, and unless you’re reading the map, there are surprises around every corner. 

Photographability: Most of the exhibits are pretty easy to work with, a lot of the exhibits utilize the moat barriers which provide unobstructed views of the animals, though you’ll need that zoom lens to get up close and personal. I used my Canon Mark IIn camera and 70-200mm zoom lenswith the 1:4.  The Canon G7 came out for the macro moments.

Highlights: The gibbons were howling and the siamangs were out and on the move swinging around their exhibt.  I like those neck monkeys.  Oakland has made a commitment to keeping their elephants and are building a wonderful facility to accommodate them. The flying foxes were especially cool too, I’ve never seen an exhibit like this one. Judy made a fun video of the flying foxes.

Lowlights: They’ve got a troop of chimps but it’s impossible to shoot through the fencing. 

Pleasant Surprises: This was my first visit to the Oakland Zoo, sandwiched between visits to several others.  I loved the smallness of it, and prefer it to the San Francisco Zoo.

Would I Return?: Yes, I already have plans to in April 2009.

Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium


Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium

4/11/08 Litchfield Park, Arizona.

Review: This spring visit coincided with that of screaming children and school groups. (The zoo has since been renovated to add an adjoining aquarium. The addition of the aquarium helps swallow some of the crowds.) To see a review of the aquarium, click here.  If you appreciate an enormous collection of birds and small primates but aren’t as intent on photographing them, this zoo is a good stop for you.  If you’re keen on photographing them, bring your patience and a good zoom lens, something f2.8 would be ideal. 

Photographability: I shot with a Mark IIn and the 70-200 zoom lens and the Canon G7.  It was a bright sunny day, the ISO was mostly fixed at 200. This zoo is truly a photographers challenge.  Either the exhibits use photo friendly natural barriers (yay!) or something entirely impossible to photograph through, let alone view the animals. Two layers of cyclone fencing AND/or cross hatched giant birdcage like enclosures are sure ways to keep me walking.

Highlights: There were a lot of babies, babies make zoos fun! The giraffes aren’t represented at left, but the giraffe exhibit allows for some fun interactions.

Lowlights: Along with a an extensive bird collection they also have a lot of little primates in impossible to see enclosures.  The paths are all dirt, it gets pretty dusty when the children all scuff their feet, so you’ll need something to occasionally wipe your lens. 

Pleasant surprise: I like ducks, ducklings are even cooler!  

Would I return: Sure, if  Judy (see her photos) wants to see the new aquarium next time we’re in Arizona, I’ll go.

Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Arizona Desert Sonora Museum

sonorandesertArizona Sonora Desert Museum

1/9/2006 Tucson, Arizona

Review: The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum has a wonderful collection of animals from the Sonora Desert.  If you’re not from Arizona, this is a great place to visit to get a sense of the wildlife and foliage in the area.

Photographability: The zoo grounds are gorgeous and beautifully maintained. Natural barriers are used most often, though the animals are native to the area so they are adapt to blending in.  I was starring at a pack of peccary long before actually seeing them.  I used the Canon 20d with the 70-200 zoom and the 24-70mm with a macro.

Highlights: The hummingbird exhibit was really cool.  These birds are really hard to shoot in the wild, so it was a fun experience to be so close to them and their favorite feeding sources.

Lowlights: We walked through a lot of the exhibits without seeing anything.  While that can be a great teaching opportunity for camouflage, I like to SEE the animals.  There’s A LOT of walking involved out into the open sun.  Even in december it was really hot.

Pleasant Surprises: Coming up close _safely_with a black widow was a new sight.  

Would I Return?: Maybe if I was bringing a newbie to Arizona and we had some free time in Tucson. (I do recommend this zoo and grounds for those interested in the desert, go in the spring, the desert in bloom is gorgeous)

Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Out of Africa Wildlife Park

outofafricaOut of Africa Wildlife Park

4/13/2008 Cape Verde, Arizona

Review: Out of Africa Wildlife Park was hoakey and REALLY cool. The park has an incredible collection of big cats as well as a pretty thorough plains grazer group.  My friend and Judy and I were both skeptical, but figured if they could get $36 for admission, they had to come through.  Come through they did, with cool shows like Tiger Splash and the Predator Feed, we left licking our own chops!

Photographability: These  guys encourage and thought about photography so much, they actually built viewing platforms with eye level unobstructed views. Bravo!  During feedings times, the keepers told us what they were going to do before they did it, allowed photographers to get into place and then proceeded.  Such customer service!  Fantastic.  We got up close and personal on the Safari, animals without the predator instinct are quite friendly! Tiger Splash was really cool (Check out Judy’s Tiger Splash Video) but it was hard to anticipate, track, and manually focus through the fencing, I had fun watching!  I used my Canon MarkIIn with the 70-200mm and  1:4 converter, and the Canon G7 for those fun candid moments.

Highlights: The Predator feed was spectacular!  Following the feed truck loaded with hunks of meat down predator alley was fantastic.  Whole turkeys, horse limbs, chickens and other slabs of raw meat were tossed into the animals enclosures, and we had prime viewing spots to see it.  Tiger Splash was also really cool, though a little tense, there’s always the feeling that one of tigers could turn, inadvertently or not, and really injure one of the handlers.

Lowlights: Not the zoos fault, but is was FREEZING, not what we expected for April in Arizona. (it SNOWED on our way home)

Pleasant Surprises: The whole experience was a pleasant surprise!

Would I Return?: I do think Judy and I will make a return the next time we make an escape to Arizona! And, we’ll have LAYERS.

Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Reid Park Zoo


reidparkThe Reid Park Zoo

1/7/2007 Tucson, Arizona

Review: The Reid Park Zoo is a nice little zoo with a great collection of big animals!  The layout is easily meander-able, and unless you’re reading the map, there are surprises around every corner. 

Photographability: Most of the exhibits are pretty easy to work with, a lot of the exhibits utilize the moat barriers which provide unobstructed views of the animals, though you’ll need that zoom lens to get up close and personal.  The lion exhibit and tiger exhibit were tough to work with, though once the lion settled down in front of the plexiglas window I found an un-smugged portion to work with.  I used my Canon 20d, the 24-70, and 70-200mm with the 1:4. 

Highlights: I love anteaters, and the zoo has a great collection! The lion was entertaining, and I like that i captured him looking, relaxed!

Lowlights: Shooting through curved plexiglas is challenging and frustrating.  It’s impossible to get a focus point.

Pleasant Surprises: The anteaters were super active, and I’d forgotten how many they have.  Cool animals.

Would I Return?: Sure, next time I’m in Tucson, but if I’m in Arizona for just a short visit, I’ll hit the Phoenix Zoo instead.

Rating: (out of 10)