Sacramento Zoo embraces trend toward small-animal exhibits

Once, the elephants, polar bears and other large, splashy animals were the star attractions for throngs of children who visited the Sacramento Zoo.

Youngsters, meet the aardvark and the Wolf’s guenon.

The city zoo, in an attempt to make the best of its 14 acres in William Land Park, is following a global trend by refocusing on smaller creatures rather than the traditional large species long considered mainstays of zoos and circus acts. Their effort is reflected in its newest exhibit, Small Wonders of Africa, which opens to the public Saturday.

Smaller is not necessarily less interesting, experts insist.

“There is no reason why a brown animal that is 3 inches long can’t be just as exciting as an elephant,” said Keith McClintock, a principal of the Portico Group, a Seattle firm that designs exhibits for zoos and aquariums around the world.

“With smaller species, you can have more variety, and create more engaging activities for the animals and the public,” McClintock said. “You can get people just as excited about an exhibit with smaller animals, and you don’t need 5 acres to do it.”

The Sacramento Zoo still features some larger animals – known in the trade as “charismatic vertebrates” – including giraffes, chimpanzees and tigers. Many are covered by an international species survival plan that calls for strict management of their care and breeding in an effort to sustain their populations.

But the Land Park institution has gradually phased out bears, elephants, hippos and other iconic species whose natural environments are difficult to replicate in tight quarters. The zoo’s smaller featured residents include red pandas, lemurs and a wide variety of birds.

The change in focus was a priority for the zoo’s longtime executive director, Mary Healy, who died unexpectedly last month. Healy, who was 61, suffered a cerebral aneurysm and heart attack while traveling by ship from Ecuador to the Galapagos Islands on Aug. 8. The new exhibit was Healy’s last major project and will serve as a lasting tribute, said public relations coordinator Tonja Candelaria.

The zoo’s new interim director is Adrian Fowler, a veterinary surgeon who moved from North Carolina to serve as the zoo’s deputy director just two weeks before Healy’s death

“This was very much one of her visions, to have a focus on smaller creatures that you would find in Africa,” Fowler said. “This is a general trend that is happening in zoos worldwide.

“That’s not to say that a big zoo won’t spend $10 million on a polar bear exhibit. But when you’re small, you have to live within your means.”

Ed Hansen, chief executive officer for the American Association of Zoo Keepers, based in Arizona, said the trend is a response to research that has documented better and more humane approaches to managing captive animals. It is also a bow to public pressure to improve conditions at zoos.

“We’re no longer just presenting a bunch of animals to the public for their enjoyment,” said Hansen, a zookeeper supervisor for more than two decades. “In the past, you would go to the zoo and see cage after cage after cage of big animals on concrete floors, behind bars. You rarely see that anymore.”

Zoos have become more keenly focused on biodiversity, species management and conservation, as well as public education about animals that may be threatened or endangered, Hansen said. Part of that effort involves creating more natural environments for captive creatures.

“One of the missions of zoos today is to try to replicate, given space constraints, what animals experience in the wild,” he said. “That is our duty. Smaller animals may be less spectacular in the eyes of the visitor. But the experience of seeing them reflects what the zoo is trying to accomplish. It’s a much better living environment for the animals.”

Zoos today take pains to simulate weather patterns, plants, bodies of water and scents that wild animals might encounter in nature. Some even rotate animals among exhibits to keep them interested in their surroundings.

The Small Wonders of Africa exhibit in Sacramento spans about 4,100 square feet and features five species culled from breeding programs at other zoos. Sharing the exhibit are aardvarks, red-billed hornbills, crested guinea fowl, straw-colored fruit bats and a type of monkey called a Wolf’s guenon.

Their new residence resulted from a makeover and expansion of one of the zoo’s oldest structures. At a cost of about $700,000, the zoo renovated enclosures that formerly housed parrots, porcupines and lemurs. An artificial mound will allow visitors to watch nocturnal aardvarks while they sleep.

The exhibit features a short “flyway” for the colorful hornbills, a nesting area for the hens, and ropes, trees and caves for the monkeys.

“These are busy, active animals that are very engaging,” said Fowler. “We’re introducing some species, such as aardvarks, that people have not necessarily seen in zoos before. When people come to Small Wonders, they will get a very fun spin on the animals and their environments.”

McClintock, of the Seattle design firm, said zoos face new challenges in the Internet age, when “children can look at animal habitats around the world” with the click of a computer mouse.

“If they go to a zoo and see a beautiful animal in a cage, they’re thinking ‘Wait a minute. That’s not how they should be living. That’s not fun for the animal, or respectful.’ It’s sending the wrong message.”

While some people might miss seeing elephants and bears, he said, “this is an educational opportunity to get people to understand why they won’t necessarily see an elephant. That the best thing for the elephant is to have them live somewhere else, and to educate people about why a little mole rat, for example, is just as interesting.”

The concept makes sense to Miguel Valdez, who visited the zoo this week with his 2-year-old son Tristan.

“Traditionally, you do expect to see things like elephants and rhinos when you come to the zoo,” Valdez said. “But there are a lot of interesting animals in nature, and not all of them are large. I think a mix of large and small animals is good.”