Saturday, October 29, 2011


The asymmetry of antlers
Doesn't bother the caribou
At peace with imperfection.
A worn pointer,
A broken rack,
It doesn't matter.
No mirrors to reveal deficiencies,
The girls know no better.

Eric R. Eaton circa 1989

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Zoo With a View

I would never have known about the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo were it not for my girlfriend, who works as a zookeeper there. This remarkable attraction advertises itself as the only truly mountain zoo in the United States, and it lives up to that billing. Sitting literally on the side of Cheyenne Mountain at an elevation of 6, 800 feet, it offers a panoramic view of Colorado Springs and the plains that stretch beyond the city.

It must be one of the oldest zoos in western North America, too, founded in 1926 by mining mogul Spencer Penrose. He incorporated the facility in 1938 as a non-profit public trust. This is another unique aspect of the zoo: it is privately run and takes no tax dollars for its operation, relying solely on admissions, memberships, donations and grants for its existence and continuing expansion.

The zoo hosts over 1, 000 animals representing nearly 200 species. Some of these are seasonal exhibits, such as the alligators, but thirty-one are participants in global Species Survival Plans. The zoo is best known for its herd of giraffes. These tall animals are a real attraction that visitors can feed from elevated boardwalks around the exhibit. Their popularity sometimes causes....well, “giraffe-ic jams.”

The zoo views are more than scenic, though you can take the “Mountaineer Sky Ride, ” a ski-lift style incline, for the ultimate experience. The zig-zag pedestrian pathways between exhibits allow one to often have a nearly 360 degree view of some of the animals. I was startled to find myself only a few feet from a Mountain Goat just below me when I was watching a magpie in its enclosure.

Maintaining accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a constant challenge given the age of many of the enclosures and the buildings that house still other exhibits, but progress is both steady and obvious. A brand new elephant barn and vastly expanded outdoor yard are nearing completion as I write this. Zoo officials were hoping to debut the new digs by now, but concern for the safety and acclimatization of the pachyderms means the grand opening will be delayed.

The zoo administrators are endlessly creative in fundraising. One example is the “Round Up for Elephants” that allows patrons of the zoo restaurant and other concessions to round up their purchase price with the extra change going to finishing the new exhibit. The zoo thus makes it easy for you to make a difference.

Yet another interesting facet of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is that some of the wildlife is not in cages. Native Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels have run of the place, when they can avoid becoming the prey of weasels. Deer make regular appearances on the grounds. Bears are problematic and unwanted guests that dumpster-dive after hours. Magpies scrounge for scraps from the captive animals. A Golden Eagle soared overhead just last week. Hummingbirds, as well as butterflies, bees, and other insects visit the many native flowers planted as part of the landscaping. I am working with two zookeepers to draft a list of all these species. Invertebrates included, it already tops 200 species.

Zookeepers and curators are constantly striving to create new enrichment opportunities for their captive charges, inventing new ways to enhance the mental and physical health of creatures that normally range unfettered for miles in their native habitats. Their caring attention shows. The animals are in beautiful condition.

The zoo does not settle for the standard fair of keeper talks and summer camps, either. Many special events highlight the year, including this month’s “Boo at the Zoo,” and the ever-popular “Electric Safari,” celebrating its 20th anniversary this holiday season.

I am looking forward to learning more about the zoo, and maybe even helping to integrate more invertebrate wildlife into their collection. It is difficult to not want to be a part of something that brings so much joy to visitors, and helps insure the continued survival of endangered species.

For more information, please see the web site for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, as well as their blog, ”In Between the Spots.” Follow the zoo on Twitter and “like” it on Facebook. Most of all, do visit, become a member, or otherwise participate in more than the virtual zoo. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Trouble With Tucson

Ecologically and economically, Tucson, Arizona may be one of the worst western cities.

I moved from Tucson to Colorado Springs, Colorado to be with my girlfriend, but I probably would have left anyway given the clash between my lifestyle and the realities of this Sonoran Desert city. I must preface this critique by admitting I am spoiled. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and also lived eleven years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Those two cities rank one and two in per capita greenspace of all U.S. cities. If only Tucson was even on the radar in this regard.

False Advertising
Don’t let the tourism machine fool you. The city of Tucson has essentially no natural areas. The renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is west of Tucson, on the other side of the Tucson Mountains. Sabino Canyon, a very popular destination for hikers and tourists is located north of the city limits by about six miles. Neither of these attractions is serviced by public transit. You must have a vehicle to access truly wild habitats, including the many life zones along the Mount Lemmon (Catalina) Highway.

Tohono Chul Park actually is serviced by Sun Tran (the city bus system), though it is just outside the city boundary in the far northwestern corner. Unfortunately, Tohono Chul is a private park that charges a rather substantial admission, whether or not you park a car there. They do provide superior natural history interpretation, including the best presentation on reptiles I have seen anywhere.

Where is the Wild?
The city itself has made almost no effort to provide natural parks. I frequented Greasewood Park on the extreme western fringe by Pima Community College West Campus. There are picnic tables, one central ramada (shelter), and trails, but the park is notorious as a meeting place for gay men to have trysts. Kennedy Park on the southeast side has a few trails and backs up against the truly wild Tucson Mountain Park, but it also has a “lake” stocked with fish, and the requisite ball fields, even an amphitheatre.

Indeed, the county parks are the truly natural parks, but again, they are inaccessible by public transportation. Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park is a unique, albeit heavily managed, wetland frequented as much by birdwatchers as the average family wanting a barbecue venue. There is also an art gallery and the local Audubon Society chapter has a presence there.

The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
I got all excited when I first arrived in Tucson back in 2001 because I learned of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a county blueprint designed to protect critical habitat for vulnerable species like the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I attended a meeting full of enthusiasm only to learn that the entire City of Tucson was exempted from the plan. This would never be tolerated in Portland, and probably not Cincinnati, either. The Tucson Audubon Society is finally addressing the idea of urban wildlife habitats and corridors, but their emphasis still seems to be on leading birding trips to other areas of southeast Arizona.

Jobs, or Lack Thereof
”You get paid in sunshine” is a recurring excuse for the low wages of Tucson. True, the cost of living is fairly low there, but you can’t get ahead, either. There is an almost complete absence of mid-level jobs. It is either literally “rocket science,” with high-end optics, defense (weapons) contractors, and bio-engineering demanding a highly-educated workforce, or “Do you want fries with that?” While immigrants, illegal or legal, probably don’t impact the availability of jobs, the insistence on catering to non-English speakers means that if you are not bilingual your chances of landing many types of jobs is slim.

Maybe the most overriding and bleakest aspect of Tucson is its sprawling nature. Tucsonans are quick to point to Phoenix as a sprawling, smog-shrouded city to be avoided at all costs, but they don’t have much room to argue sitting in the Old Pueblo. Long ago Tucson decided you couldn’t build anything over two or three stories so as not to obscure your neighbors’ view of the Santa Catalina Mountains, but the price of this has been low-density development and a horizontal expansion that shows no signs of even slowing, let alone stopping. Meanwhile, the economic decline has resulted in many, many vacant storefronts that breed graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Litter swirls in the dust devils. The homeless occupy alleys and city parks.

So Long
While I truly love the friends I made while living in Tucson (and it took a long time to find them given the odd demographics), I can’t say I’m sorry to bid farewell to the town itself. I don’t know yet whether Colorado Springs will be much better, but I’m more optimistic. Tucson *might* be able to turn itself around, but it will take some strong-willed visionaries, and a lot of time. Good luck with that.