The zoos of my childhood were places where miserably unhappy animals paced away their lives in cages of steel, concrete and glass.
Fortunately, a revolution took place in the world of zookeeping, thanks to people who really love animals, and many of today’s zoos are radically different. One of the happiest I’ve ever seen — for the animals, their keepers and visitors — is the Guadalajara Zoo.
Widely considered the best not only in Mexico but in all of Latin America, El Zoológico de Guadalajara has been a pioneer and innovator. They have — among many, many other attractions — a teleférico (cable car system) called Sky Zoo, a safari park, the Orangutan Skyway, an interactive museum and a first-class aquarium.
Are you looking for unusual creatures like manatees, Komodo dragons, axolotls or Antarctic penguins? You’ll find them here!
This zoo is also remarkable for its success in animal reproduction: everything from Bengal tigers and rhinos to jaguars, gorillas and even the grey Mexican wolf, which is extinct in nature, has been bred here.
I recently had an opportunity to wander about the Guadalajara Zoo with its public relations director, Danae Vázquez, whose name and face are well known to the public all over Latin America, thanks to 485 YouTube videos (“Desde el Zoológico” ) which she and her team have made on every conceivable aspect of animals and nature.
“One of the things that makes our zoo different,” Danae told me, “is its location. The zoo is perched right at the edge of the beautiful Huentitán Canyon, which is 500 meters deep. So we have a spectacular view that would be hard to match anywhere else.
“This location also has the perfect topography for creating enclosures where the animals can live in natural environments, surrounded by trees, rocks, streams, hills and gullies — and we have 50 hectares of this! So you don’t see many cages here, and animals feel at home.“
Danae had promised me a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo.
“And we’re going to start in our kitchen,” she told me with sparkling eyes. “Many people assume that a zoo gives its animals leftovers, food that people don’t want to eat. Let me take you on a quick tour, and I’ll show you just what it is we feed to our guests at this zoo.”
Well, I have to admit my mouth was watering minutes after starting this tour. Danae kept showing me fruits and vegetables of far better quality than those I normally see in supermarkets: beautiful bell peppers, celery, apples, papayas, mandarins, berries and the plumpest, juiciest grapes you could ever desire.
I discovered that there is practically an army of cooks and experts here, preparing thousands of delicious meals for creatures ranging from black mambas to black bears.
After that, Danae led me around the zoo to some of her favorite places. In each of them, I found myself interacting with delightful creatures: there I was with exotic birds landing on my shoulders and head, waiting their turn to peck on a seed stick in my hand. Next, I was scratching the leathery back of Maite, a huge rhinoceros dearly beloved by Danae:
“She was having terrible problems until we discovered, to our surprise, that she’s allergic to dust, which irritates her eyes. Now we wet down her territory in the morning so she can enjoy the outdoors. And in the afternoon, when things dry up, we bring Maite indoors — where she is obviously happy to have an occasional visitor to scratch her back.”
Next, we were off to visit the giraffes, but it was far more than a visit. We were handed carrot and cucumber sticks (of the highest quality, of course) by an attendant and encouraged to feed them to several giraffes looking down at us from the other side of a high fence.
Well, I can testify that it is really a unique experience to feel the palm of your hand tickled by the big, thick, purple tongue of a giraffe!
As we moved about the zoo, Danae mentioned that every day, after 6 p.m. (when the public leaves), “Many animals living down in Huentitán Canyon come up to the zoo to pay us a visit: foxes, skunks, macaws and even a yellow-throated toucan (not one of ours), for example. The toucan comes to talk to the macaws and, of course, we feed him.”
At this point, we were walking past a sign that read, “Close your umbrella in this area!”
“There has to be a story behind this sign,” I told my guide.
“Of course,” she replied. “Some years ago, we received a tigress who had belonged to some private person. She mated with our male tiger, and they had four babies. Before the babies arrived, we had no problems with either tiger, but something strange happened the first time the mother took her babies out for a walk.
“It was July, and it was very hot, so one of the visitors who came to see the tigers was carrying a parasol. Well, the moment the parasol was opened, the tigress was transformed. She began to roar and did her best to charge at the person carrying it. After a while, the caretakers noticed she only did this when there was an open umbrella in view, so we put up this sign, and that solved the problem.”
This story reminded Danae of what she calls The Curious Case of the Wayward Spider Monkey.
“We used to have a little island in the middle of a lagoon, and we had a number of spider monkeys living there. Every day, the staff would go to the island on a boat, feed them and come back. Well, one day, the boat somehow became detached from its mooring, and the current carried it to Monkey Island.
“So, a monkey got on it and then floated over to the shore. Well, it was four in the afternoon,.and I happened to be driving by in an electric cart with a vet, and there in the picnic area, we see this monkey walking upright on two legs and waving its arms around.
“And all the people over there are kind of moving away, and they’re looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow, is this normal?’ So the two of us went over there with our arms stretched out to make a kind of human barricade between the people and the monkey because we didn’t know if it might be aggressive.
“Finally, it came to a tree, climbed it and fortunately stayed there until we recaptured it and took it back home.”
My visit to the zoo ended at its famed Antarctica Habitat, featuring rare Adélie and gentoo penguins.
This was definitely my first experience standing close to penguins of any kind, and what a delightful experience it was. It seemed like a penguin telenovela (soap opera) was in full swing inside that below-zero enclosure, with each of them running about, discussing serious matters with everyone else and then taking a break by diving into the icy water.
“I think if you came to the zoo and spent all of your time only watching penguins, you’d consider your day very well spent. And I guess I would have to say the same thing about the orangutans… and the macaws and…
Well, I think you get the idea. If you ever have a chance to visit the Guadalajara Zoo, do it!
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, Volume Three. More of his writing can be found on his blog.