Miami-Dade County

Fabiola Santiago: Zoo Miami seeks to preserve Florida’s backyard

Florida Panther sign calling attention to its endangered status.
Florida Panther sign calling attention to its endangered status.

I was posing for a photo at the Bengal tiger exhibit at what was then the county’s fledgling MetroZoo the day I realized I was pregnant with my first daughter. My husband was taking the picture when dizzying nausea sent me rushing to the restroom to throw up.

Not an elegant start to a 35-year love affair with today’s Zoo Miami, but it was the beginning of a multi-generational family relationship with an institution that, more than entertainment, is a live teaching laboratory on animal and botanical science, geography and conservation.

For years, my three little girls bolted through the entrance and roamed carefree in search of their favorite creature — and without their being aware of it, the lessons began.

“The tapir, the tapir!” my oldest would shout.

She came to know many exotic specimens by name without needing to read the label. But we read them to learn where the animals came from and about their often amusing characteristics and behaviors. It’s no wonder that as a grown woman Tanya volunteers doing the kind of hard, grunt work with animals that most of us would run away from, and that she travels with purpose, curiosity and heart.

All of this preamble is to say, I couldn’t have been happier to learn that the focus of Zoo Miami’s new director, Carol Kruse, will be about conservation — and not only of the world’s endangered species but that of our own beleaguered backyard.

A Florida exhibit will open in late 2016 to call attention to our precious fauna, some, like the panther, threatened with extinction by development and roadway fragmentation of their habitats. I could already see the extinction message carried out throughout the park in placards listing endangered animals — telling us what we can do to help keep them around — when Tanya and I visited Saturday with my 6-year-old grandson, the third generation in training to become people who care about the environment.

My grandson, however, couldn’t roam so carefree.

Zoo-goers now use rental multi-seat bicycles to get around the 340 acres of developed park — and unfortunately the contraptions are so popular that they’re all rented out by noon on good-weather weekends, a zoo spokeswoman told me.

Drivers looking at animals and not watching the road, and children in their midst, are a terrible combination. I had to constantly grab my grandson to make sure they were not running into him, or he into them. It was a drizzling, slow day at the zoo — and we loved it, grateful for the weather’s thinning of the crowds. But if the child-cycle combination was a problem, imagine when the zoo is crowded.

The resistance to pleasurable walking in a park is the ultimate manifestation of Miami’s obsession with getting around on wheels. How unfortunate that the rest of us have to endure its effects here, too.

“It’s a very large park, very hot and people wanted to ride around protected from the sun and carrying their bags in the safari cycle,” says spokeswoman Cindy Castelblanco. “We’re aware they create a traffic jam and we’re working to address the issues related to them.”

Ah, the times.

What ever happened to wearing a hat, putting on sun screen and carrying a backpack with water and snacks to enjoy a park?

But then again, the big draw isn’t even the animals anymore.

A popular mechanical dinosaur exhibit brought record crowds in June — 75,000 people — to a zoo that draws 70 percent of its traffic from locals. The placards listing endangered animals — a bit of a preview of the Florida exhibit to come — were cleverly tied to the dinosaurs. But were people reading them? Not so much.

Just driving by…and people’s idea of enjoying the sunning Komodo dragon? Throwing a penny on the animal’s back, despite the surveillance video camera sign.

Our otherwise fabulous zoo also faces a harsh, circle-of-life reality.

Some of those animals we’ve loved for years are now dying.

The white, blue-eyed Bengal tiger, Carlita, was euthanized in 2013 after a two-week illness. Cobber, a male koala named after the Australian slang for “friend” who had been at the zoo since 1999, died in February. He was 19, and lived nine years longer than most koalas. He was followed by the female koala, Danda-Loo, who was almost 20 when she was euthanized in May after suffering, like her boyfriend, from old-age ailments.

I’m thinking another species is in great danger: The knowledge-seeking human for whom seeing animals in a zoo was delightful enough.