Zoo Miami’s mission: to make sure the zoo isn’t the last place you see these animals

New Everglades exhibit at Zoo Miami

Recorrido del la última exhibición del Zoo Miami, 'Florida: Mission Everglades.' (En Inglés)
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Recorrido del la última exhibición del Zoo Miami, 'Florida: Mission Everglades.' (En Inglés)

When Zoo Miami opens its new $33 million Mission Everglades exhibit on Dec. 10, one of the main attractions will be Clarita the crocodile, housed in a tricked-out tank expected to wow visitors with a plexiglass tube for nose-to-snout encounters with the rare 11-foot reptile and her neighbors.

But what’s equally remarkable is how Clarita got here, a journey that covers South Florida’s sometimes wacky history and its complicated relationship with the imperiled marshes.

In the making for five years and under construction for nearly two, Mission Everglades sits near the entrance to the 740-acre zoo, bestowing a measure of prominence on an ecosystem the zoo long ignored. At 4.5 acres, it’s compact but includes all the bells and whistles visitors to Florida attractions have come to expect: Clarita’s newfangled enclosure, a similar tube fashioned into a slide through the river otter tank, a wobbly rope bridge across the gator pool, and a “Lost River” ride on miniature “airboats.” The zoo also got a snazzy new entrance.

Yet what comes across repeatedly — in the wetlands where wild birds mingle with zoo birds, the native coontie lining a walkway or the mini stand of pine rockland — is the mission, as its name implies, of an exhibit to showcase what South Florida nearly wiped out.

For a long time zoos focused on animals. You put an animal in a cage, the animal paced back and forth and that was a display. In hindsight that was horrific.

Zoo Miami Communications Director Ron Magill

“For a long time zoos focused on animals. You put an animal in a cage, the animal paced back and forth and that was a display. In hindsight that was horrific,” said communications director Ron Magill, a former zookeeper.

“The greatest threat to wildlife is not hunting or poaching as much as it is habitat loss and habitat destruction. And until people understand that, we’re not going to be able to save these animals,” he said. “The saddest thing in the world would be if the zoo was the last place you could see these animals.”

Cue Clarita.

In 1971, shrimpers accidentally netted the baby croc off Matheson Hammock Park. At the time, crocs numbered in the hundreds, wiped out by hunters and habitat loss. The shrimpers, afraid they’d injured her, delivered the croc to famed snake handler Bill Haast at the old Miami Serpentarium, the musty, dusty beloved shrine to reptiles, where Joe Wasilewski was working sweeping floors and cleaning cages. But the agile croc, then named Clarence, kept escaping her pit. So in 1976, after Wasilewski started his own reptile exhibit at an Everglades airboat attraction, Haast handed the croc, now measuring nearly seven feet, off to Wasilewski.

Wasilewski discovered she was female and renamed her Clarita in honor of Haast’s second wife. Four years later when he left the airboat ride, he took Clarita with him. After a stop at the zoo, Clarita lived for a while among the flamingos and tarpon at the Seaquarium’s old Lost Island exhibit, then headed to the Philadelphia Zoo, where a Wasilewski friend had become a curator. About a decade ago, Wasilewski brought her back to South Florida to the Everglades Outpost, opened by Bill and Barbara Freer to rescue and rehab wildlife.

In the years since, South Florida’s crocs rebounded, aided by the Endangered Species Act created two years after Clarita was netted. Among their chief protectors was Wasilewski, who went on to earn a degree in biology and helped manage their comeback.

“She’s old and new Florida rolled into one,” he said.

$33 millionThe cost of Zoo Miami’s new Mission Everglades exhibit

For Magill, whose first job was at the Serpentarium, Clarita was the perfect ambassador for an exhibit he’s been suggesting since he started at the zoo 37 years ago.

“People look at these animals and say, ‘Oh, you’ve taken these animals out of the wild and put them in human care.’ No. These animals here are rescued animals that could never have survived in the wild, have endured life-threatening injuries that would have prohibited their ability to survive in the wild.”

That includes a caracara, a rarely seen bird of prey that was shot and left without a wing; a panther found as a cub on a Naples tennis court after her mother and sibling were run down by a car, and a bald eagle hit by a car.

“We provide them with a wonderful retirement home,” Magill said.

But finding them was no easy feat. The Everglades, which once covered much of the South Florida peninsula with miles of marshes, cypress swamps, pine rocklands and hardwood hammocks, have shrunk by half. Many of the animals have become so rare they are protected by law. Just 100 to 180 panthers remain. Croc habitat remains scarce — one of their chief nesting grounds is among cooling canals at Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point nuclear plant. Most specimens had to be obtained through rehab centers, including the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station and the Everglades Outpost rehab center, Magill said.

We didn’t know what we wanted where, but we did know there was certain iconic species we wanted.

Zoo Miami Communications Director Ron Magill

“We didn’t know what we wanted where, but we did know there was certain iconic species we wanted,” he said.

Once they secured the animals, laying out the exhibit was as simple as dissecting the Everglades into various habitats: a wetlands for wading birds, an oolite wall made of cast concrete to explain the porous rock that makes South Florida’s water supply unique, a coastal wetlands and a hardwood hammock. There were a few wrong turns. A consultant recommend sticking a deep-sea fishing boat at the entrance to the wetlands.

“Everybody is like, what’s the deal with the boat?” said Magill, who turned the mistake into a learning tool. “It’s an example of what you don’t take into the Everglades.”

The massive white shade feature over the new entrance also hit a snag. Originally it was supposed to include a lightning and thunder feature that got “value-engineered out” when the budget came up short, he said.

There’s also been lots of tweaking, with zoo members and their kids standing in as visitors for test runs. Fakahatchee grass was planted in the bear and panther exhibit, but when the panther kept disappearing into the grass, out of sight to visitors, a grounds crew thinned it out. The river otters picked apart the caulk holding together one panel of the safety glass on their new tank. New safety glass was ordered, but it won’t arrive in time for the opening. Zookeepers are also struggling to acclimate the shy eagle, who drops from her perch to the ground when visitors enter the viewing platform.

But kudos to the bears, who are cooperating with a new “training wall” hidden behind a bar door and opened during demonstrations to reveal a mesh screen letting trainers care for and feed the bears. A plan to have animals that share habitat, including the panther and bears, rotate in and out of the same exhibit space on alternate days, a first for the zoo, also appears to be working.

“They pick up smells and it keeps them on their toes,” Magill said. “A little bit of stress is good. It keeps their instincts up and keeps them exploring.”

While they may not offer the wow factor of the bobcats or the bears, Magill said the birds in the wetlands exhibit — a rainbow of herons including tri-color, little greens and great blues, pelicans, roseate spoonbills and a woodstork — are by far his favorite attraction. That’s because on any give day as many wild birds can be seen as resident zoo birds, he said.

“There are very few exhibits in the world where a significant portion of animals in the exhibit are actual wild animals that come in there by choice because the exhibit is so good,” he said. “That is the perfect window of the Everglades. [It’s] co-existing.”

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