Zoological Parks, like society itself, have evolved greatly over time. Keeping captured animals is no longer a symbol of wealth and status;  the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries brought both curiosity and reverence for the biological world. Fortunately, the dark history of animals cruelly wasting in cages (menageries) is the antithesis of the mission of modern zoos. The very best of these, like Reid Park Zoo, meet the strictest of qualifications as accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These modern zoos are committed to protect, conserve and enlighten. 

During most of human evolution, we co-existed with wild animals; we were all part of the natural ecosystem. However, one consequence of our advanced society is isolation from that natural world. If we are oblivious we cannot be concerned; we will never be alarmed about a threat we know nothing about. An undeniable threat currently is that our biological world is on the brink of a crisis. 

The alarming rate and number of species extinctions is a calamity that has broad implications for all of the world’s inhabitants. Oddly, the bad news is also the good news because humans, the cause of species decline, can also provide the remedy. Studies of human behavior inform us that humans are inherently compassionate; when we learn of an impending disaster we bond together to identify the resources necessary to find solutions. For example, California Condors, the largest North American birds, are back in their natural habitat today because of captive breeding in zoos. Finding remedies begins with education, as we can solve only the problems we understand. Our accredited zoos have demonstrated they are now leaders in zoological education. 

Visitors to zoos may arrive to see exotic and fascinating animals but in the process of seeing anteaters, lions and elephants, they learn about the critical role of habitat destruction putting these beloved animals in peril. Zoos in general, and our own Reid Park Zoo in particular, are uniquely responsible for reaching countless numbers of people with a message of caring for and potentially saving species for future generations to enjoy. Without the attraction of seeing these wonderful creatures, awareness and remedial actions would not occur. In a way the educational mission of Reid Park Zoo, enlightening residents and visitors to Tucson, is a gift to all of us that is longer lasting than the delight of watching otters and meerkats play. 

During an average year half a million visitors experience the magic of Reid Park Zoo and leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of zoological diversity of our world. Importantly, in an average year nearly 30,000 school children participate in educational field trips to the zoo — cost-free thanks to grant funding. Our zoo is an educational leader in Tucson and the state of Arizona; the impact of an educated populace is invaluable to all of us. 

When we think of all that the Reid Park zoo contributes to our society, enlightening Tucsonans about the threats and solutions to species in crisis may be its greatest gift. We are fortunate that Tucson has among its many wonders, this world-class educational zoo, and further that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide additional sources of wonder, empathy, and connection to the natural world.

A driving force:  Conservation

A slightly implausible family discussion:

Mom and Dad:   Where would you like to go on Saturday, you two?

Jimmy:   How about to the Animal Welfare Organization?

Susie:    Yay!   I can’t wait to see all the enrichment!  Please, Daddy?

Jimmy:  Me too!   And the inspiring animal management!  Can we?  Mom?

In other words, they’d love to go to the zoo. And although Jimmy and Susie might not notice the behavioral enrichment and quality animal management, not to mention the world-class veterinary care behind the scenes, these are all features of responsible and reputable zoos, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to the AZA, more than 183 million people visit accredited zoos in the U.S. every year, and that’s more than the annual attendance at games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined! Visits to zoos provide affordable and healthful outings with the additional bonus of education, development of empathy, and increased connection to the natural world, so crucial for today’s urban dwellers.  

None of these benefits are coincidental. Accredited zoos are carefully designed to provide habitats and enrichment that allow animals to engage as much as possible in the same activities they would in the wild. Grounds are beautiful, green, and ADA accessible. Zoo staff and volunteers are carefully trained to provide up-to-date information about each species and its conservation status, including actions visitors can take to support conservation efforts. A high-quality accredited zoo, like the Reid Park Zoo, has a robust commitment to species and habitat conservation, both on the grounds and “in situ” (in the wild).  

Commitment to Conservation

The Species Survival Plan Program

Let’s begin with what’s happening on the grounds of the Reid Park Zoo. You may notice that you’ll see both males and females of many species, for example the Grevy’s Zebras, the Baird’s Tapirs, the Lions, the Anteaters, the Meerkats, the African Elephants, the Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhinos, and more. Sometimes these males and females are together, and other times they are in adjacent habitats – why? It is all about The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.  

If certain individuals of a species are designated for breeding in a member zoo, they will be allowed to roam their habitat together, and to let nature take its course. But many of these creatures are solitary in the wild, so they prefer to have individual habitats except during breeding season. These couples need to be gradually and carefully “introduced” again every time there is a breeding recommendation for them  (examples of this at the Reid Park Zoo are the anteaters and tapirs in the South America Loop).

The SSP for each species is coordinated meticulously (by the AZA) to determine which animals can breed in order to produce offspring that will enhance the genetic diversity of the species in general. At some time in the future, when native habitats are safer for a species, perhaps offspring from these pairings can be reintroduced into the wild to begin restoring the numbers of their species. 

An inspiring SSP story comes to us from the Phoenix Zoo. The Arabian Oryx, (a beautiful antelope) was classified as extinct in the wild due to hunting. However, a breeding and reintroduction program for this animal in Phoenix enabled its reintroduction to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is now protected and boasts 1,000 individuals! An SSP in an accredited zoo can make a real difference, especially because according to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are still 33 mammals – as well as countless other creatures and plants –  in the “extinct in the wild” category. 

The SAFE Program

Another AZA initiative that the Reid Park Zoo participates in is the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which focuses on certain species threatened in the wild. The four species that are supported by our Zoo through the SAFE program are the Giraffes, the Andean Highland Flamingos, The North American Monarch Butterfly, and The North American Songbird.

  • The Flamingos: The Reid Park Zoo is the program leader for this initiative, coordinating funding for research into the Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingo species. The amazing zoo staff is also responsible for coordinating all the educational and conservation materials about the flamingos for all AZA zoos.
  • The Giraffes: Tucson’s Zoo works with the SAFE program, providing conservation messaging about poaching and habitat destruction, as well as funding toward Giraffe health monitoring and population monitoring projects in situ.
  • The Pollinator Garden: One of the most popular new areas in the Zoo is the Pollinator Garden, where native plants provide food and safety for migrating Monarch Butterflies on their way to Mexico. Numbers are closely recorded and reported to the SAFE program. Of course, this area also provides food and shelter for many other important pollinators, such as bees! There are special “bee boxes” for those bees that live in hives, and once established, they are relocated by a bee expert to agricultural areas where they can assist in even more pollination.
  • The North American Songbird SAFE program:  In  collaboration with the Audubon Society, nest boxes have been installed throughout the zoo to house several native bird species. Many enjoy the Pollinator Garden. Also, on the grounds you’ll now have opportunities to learn more about our native birds and how we can protect them.

In-Situ Conservation Partnerships

The Reid Park Zoo supports and contributes financially to a number of in-country conservation programs, including  The Tanzania Conservation and Science Program, The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil, The Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, Andean Bear Research by the University of Arizona in the Chingaza Massif region of Colombia, the International Rhino Foundation, and the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.  

Conservation is truly the core mission of The Reid Park Zoo.

And the Reid Park Zoo expansion, when completed, will allow Tucson’s Zoo to further increase their commitment to conservation, as more endangered species, such as Tigers, Siamangs, Komodo Dragons, and Red Pandas will be given a greater chance to survive for future generations. It’s nice to know that  just by visiting The Reid Park Zoo, you too will be helping to save these animals!

You really want to know, What type of animal you are seeing?

At first glance you might see an animal with a conglomeration of characteristics from more familiar species. You will see a prehensile snout like an elephant, a thick hide like a hippo, or hoofed toes like a zebra. Because it has 3 toes on its hind legs, it belongs to the Perissodactyla Order of odd- toed Ungulates. That means the tapir is not a relative of the elephant or hippo, but it IS more closely related to zebras and rhinoceros – not something you’d guess just by seeing one! But they’re definitely worth seeing.

Baird’s Tapirs have played a central role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests, grasslands, wetlands and rainforests from southern Mexico all the way down to Colombia, for millions of years. Today’s tapir are called a primitive species because according to fossil remains, they have not changed since the Eocene era (about 33 – 56 million years ago).

At 400-600 plus pounds, the adult Baird’s Tapir is the largest land mammal found in its regional habitats. Their giant football shape, tiny tail and high-stepping back legs help them move nimbly through the dense forest. With the exception of cream colored ear tips and cream color under their chins and on their chest area, they have brownish-black short fur, which covers their very muscular thick-hided and thick-necked bodies.

Their toes spread out for good traction in mud or river banks. The tapir’s ears, eyes and snouts are located on or near the top of their heads. This positioning is integral to helping the tapir stay submerged in the water while grazing or hiding from natural predators, especially humans and jaguars. It also makes them hard for researchers to locate and study. Fortunately we have learned a lot from tapirs in human care.

A standout tapir adaptation is their prehensile elongated snout. When tapirs dive into the water, this snout acts as a snorkel. Tapirs can hold their breath for several minutes under water. In this short video check out Contessa, the Reid Park Zoo’s female Baird’s Tapir, holding her breath. A tapir’s day may start at dusk emerging from a well-hidden resting niche. He may forage through the forest looking for tasty plants or ripe fruit. The tapirs’ night activity continues with a cool off in a lake or stream and a graze on aquatic plants, but by daybreak they expertly hide away for a rest. 

Tapirs are browsers who can grab and pull branches and leaves from a wide variety of plants. Tapirs are far ranging and can eat up to 200 species of plant! This leads to their important role as “seed dispersers,” helping to support a diverse healthy ecosystem. Some seeds from forest trees like the wild almond tree are only spread by a tapir! Tapirs are a critical partner in saving forests and rainforest trees. Saving tapirs is also important because they are an umbrella species; if you can save the tapirs and their lands you will also save other animals and plants. 

Tapirs are secretive and elusive to scientists attempting to study them. However with the use of camera traps  and consulting indigenous peoples, scientists can shed more light on the movements and habits of the tapir and maybe discover new species or subspecies. There are 4 known species of Tapir:  Baird’s, Brazilian, Mountain and Malayan. A newly- discovered type of tapir, Kobomani, was studied and found (by most scientists) not genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate species.

Baird’s Tapirs in The Reid Park Zoo 

An on-and- off again romance might best describe Tupi and Contessa’s relationship. Reid Park Zoo participates in the AZA Species Survival Plan program with these endangered Baird’s Tapirs. Our Zoo also contributes to the work of Chris Jordan, an in-situ scientist who is giving his life to tapir conservation

In the wild tapirs mostly are solitary, elusive animals. But when it is time to mate they find each other through scent marking and vocalizations. Here at the zoo the animal care keepers read the signs that Contessa may be receptive to breeding and give her and Tupi access to the habitat together. They have successfully produced two of the world’s cutest calves, in 2015 and 2018. Contessa’s gestation lasts about 13 months and her male calves have nursed for about two years. At the time Toliver, the first son, had grown to  some 400 pounds, he was given a new home in Puebla, Mexico. Ibu, their second calf, was given a new home in The Milwaukee Zoo, also at around two years old. 

I may have given you enough clues to answer this riddle: What looks like a watermelon with legs?     

tapir calf! All four tapir species with their diverse habitat elevations and diet produce similar looking calves with striped and dotted brownish coats for camouflage from predators.

When you come visit Reid Park Zoo’s South American Loop to look for Contessa and Tupi through the banana trees, vines and bamboo, I hope you’ll add a new species to your favorites list! And soon, once you’ve checked in with these amazing and appealing “conglomerate” creatures, you’ll be able to head over to the Reid Park Zoo expansion to see even more amazing animals!

Walking the Walk

Supporting the Reid Park Zoo expansion is a win-win-win for Tucson, for conservation, and yes, even for the fight against climate change.

NASA defines climate change as a “long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.” Every summer here in Tucson, you’ll hear somebody say, “It’s hotter than it used to be!” and if you’ve lived here for a while, I’m sure you agree, as do scientists. Rising or falling temperatures globally has huge implications for us as humans, and of course for the animals in the ocean, on land, and in the air. 

It’s hotter and there’s less water available? This is bad for animal reproduction and survival, and ultimately for our own. Floods and tornados? They cause habitat loss for animals and habitation loss for humans. Heatwaves (we can relate) and wildfires? In the last year, and especially in the west, we’ve experienced  major damage to and loss of native plants, species, and human dwellings.  

Catastrophic weather events seem to be increasing, and we’ve seen the frightening way they can instantly upset the delicate balance of ecosystems and the amazing biodiversity our planet supports. But can we as individuals do anything to mitigate climate change right here in Tucson? Absolutely.

Here are a few simple things you can do, right away, to fight climate change

  • First, try to decrease the number of things you throw away.  For example, store your leftovers in reusable storage containers, and especially get a real water bottle which can be refilled over and over again. 
  • Try reusable grocery bags (they cost about $1 at most local stores), or if you do get the plastic ones from the store, take them back there for recycling the next time you shop.    
  • Recycle whenever you can, because recycling something like a soda can uses less energy than manufacturing a new one!  It doesn’t sound like much, but tossing that can into your recycle bin can save enough energy to run your television for three hours!  
  • Use less water, by taking showers instead of baths, or the big one – turn off the water while you brush your teeth.  It’s amazing, but this one small action can save up to 200 gallons of water a month, especially important here in the desert.    
  • Eat more vegetables! Mom would approve, too. Try having just one meatless meal per week – you’ll improve your health, you’ll save money, and you’ll be helping to reduce greenhouse gasses.
  • Pass one of these tips on to one other person! That is how positive change begins and grows.

The most effective way for us all to mitigate climate change, though requires a somewhat greater change to our habits: limiting the use of fossil fuels in our daily lives. It might not be in reach for you to purchase an electric car or convert your home to solar energy, but you can make a decision to walk or bike to nearby places rather than driving there, or  to carpool, or even to use public transportation when you can.      

A VERY green place, literally and figuratively

Where can you find more information about what you can do to start making a safer and more sustainable world for all of us?   

How about visiting the Reid Park Zoo? As an accredited AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) member institution, our Zoo has already made a commitment to protecting the animals in their care, as well as their habitats and relatives in the wild. The Reid Park Zoo supports numerous conservation initiatives, inside the zoo and abroad, but their commitment to the mitigation of climate change may not be as well known. Let’s state for the record that the Reid Park Zoo definitely walks the walk when it comes to creating a more sustainable future for us all!

Buildings

Three of the newest buildings at the Zoo, the Conservation Learning Center, the Elephant Care Center, and the amazing Animal Health Center, were built using “green” construction. This includes solar power, highly efficient HVAC systems, and the use of recycled and sustainable materials. For example, the ceilings in the Conservation Learning Center (CLC) are made from recycled jeans – really! That’s not all – the buildings incorporate natural lighting whenever possible and were finished with non-toxic, low fume paints and adhesives. The Reid Park Zoo even received a LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for the amazing energy efficiency and sustainable construction of the CLC, and it was the first building in Southern Arizona to receive this prestigious designation.

Recycling and water usage

Everywhere on the grounds, the Zoo participates in the City of Tucson’s blue barrel recycling program, and recycle bins are everywhere to encourage guests to participate too. The Zoofari Café serves  tasty food on biodegradable dishes. In the gift shop, your purchases will never leave the store in plastic – you’ll receive a paper or reusable bag. The only straws allowed anywhere in the Zoo are part of reusable water bottles or souvenir cups. And right now, the Zoo is transitioning from the sale of plastic water bottles to reusable aluminum ones. Luckily, you can now find a “bottle fill” water station near the front entrance, so feel free to bring your own water bottle from home.     

Speaking of water, the Zoo needs a lot in order to keep the animal habitats clean and the grounds lush and green. But they use gray water – highly treated wastewater, also called reclaimed water, for these purposes. Even this water is conserved, because the keepers use low-flow, highly pressurized hoses to clean the animals’ indoor environments.

It’s not too late

According to scientists from NASA, there’s a chance we can still avoid the worst effects of climate change. The Reid Park Zoo is certainly doing its part, and they’re ready to help us do the same. And it’s a sure bet that the new construction in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will be the greenest in town!

Red Pandas are beautiful, elusive, almost secretive animals that live in mountain forests in Asia. They are adorably cute, they have several amazing adaptations for their environment, and their number in the wild is dropping fast – Red Pandas are endangered, and they will need human help to survive. 

Male and female Red Pandas are the same size, about the size of a housecat. They have dense fur with beautiful coloration. The Red Panda’s scientific name (Ailurus fulgens) translates to “fire-colored cat” or “fire fox,” and you can see how they got that name. An adult Red Panda’s back is a fiery orange-red, its belly and legs are black, and its tail is long and striped with rings of red and white. Its head is round, with a short snout and short, pointed ears. Its face resembles the face of a racoon or a weasel, with a “mask” of red, white jowls and snout, and dark “tear tracks” trailing down from its eyes. Male and female Red Pandas have this same pattern of coloration. A Red Panda’s colors stand out when you see one in the open, but they provide excellent camouflage when the animal is in trees in its natural habitat. 

Today, Red Pandas live in a narrow range of land in the mountains of India, Nepal, and China, but by studying fossils from around the world, biologists have learned that Red Pandas once roamed wide areas. In fact, these fossils show that about 40 million years ago, there were Red Pandas in many parts of what is now Asia, Europe, and North America. Modern-day Red Pandas resemble racoons and weasels, and fossils confirm that they are related to these species, but biologists who have studied the genes of these animals and scientists who have studied their behavior and habitat have concluded that the relationship between Red Pandas and racoons and weasels is not really very close. 

What about Giant Pandas?  Red Pandas and Giant Pandas share part of their names, of course, and they eat similar diets, but they really are not at all close to each other in evolution. So why are they both called pandas? Well, the name “panda” may have come from a word in one of the local languages around their natural habitat that roughly translates to “bamboo eater” – and eating bamboo is something Red Pandas and Giant Pandas certainly have in common!  In the end, though, most scientists conclude that Red Pandas are their own branch of the evolutionary tree, called the Ailuridae

They may not be close evolutionary cousins, but Red Pandas and Giant Pandas do have an unusual anatomical feature in common – they both have a “false thumb.” This is due to having a wrist bone (the sesamoid bone) that has evolved to protrude and function a bit like a thumb. This “false thumb” is really useful for holding and stripping leaves off bamboo. When species that are not closely related have similar evolutionary adaptations like this one, biologists call it “convergent evolution.” 

Red Pandas have other unusual characteristics, and one is their diet. Red Pandas eat mainly plants. Most of their diet is bamboo leaves and shoots – they eat about one-third of their body weight in bamboo every day! – but they also eat leaves of other trees, berries, mushrooms, bird eggs, and sometimes even small animals. 

Red Pandas are sometimes called “herbivorous carnivorans.”  What in the world does that mean?  Red Pandas’ closest animal relatives – racoons and weasels – are true carnivores. They eat a lot of meat. A Red Panda’s digestive tract is like that of a true carnivore, with a single-chambered stomach and a relatively short intestine. And as with true carnivores, their intestines don’t contain the microbes that most herbivores have for efficiently digesting plant material, so they don’t efficiently extract nutrients from the plants they eat.

Red Pandas’ teeth, though, have features of both carnivores and herbivores. They have incisors like (other) carnivores, but they also have large, relatively flat molars like herbivores. And their molars have ridges on top that help the Red Panda to grind up tough plant material like bamboo. Because their digestive tracts extract little of the nutrients from the plants they eat, though, pandas spend almost all their time either eating or sleeping. Taking all of this together, “herbivorous carnivorans” seems like a tailor-made description for Red Pandas! 

Red Pandas in the wild are solitary animals except during breeding season, and usually hide from predators and humans. Individuals use urine and secretions from scent glands to mark the boundaries of their territories. Their solitary lifestyle and good camouflage make it tricky for people to find them in the wild and difficult for wildlife biologists to observe their behavior or count them accurately. Most wildlife biologists who study Red Pandas, though, estimate that there are only about 10,000 left in the wild. 

This small a number of animals, combined with the fragmentation of their natural habitat, increases the risk of genetic inbreeding in the wild populations that can weaken the species as a whole and accelerate their disappearance. And the number of Red Pandas in the wild is dropping – biologists estimate that there only half as many Red Pandas in the world today as there were just 20 years ago. They are definitely an endangered species!

But why are Red Pandas disappearing? A major factor is that the wild forests they live in are more and more being used for logging or are being cut for farmland, so the Red Pandas’ natural habitat is shrinking and fragmenting. Other important factors in the decline of Red Pandas in the wild are the illegal wildlife trade and poaching for fur. 

Almost all the Red Pandas in the top zoos in North America and Europe have been born and raised in zoos. Many of these AZA-accredited zoos have developed a “Species Survival Plan” for Red Pandas, in which they work together to share information about caring for Red Pandas and managing their breeding.  In the protected environment of reputable zoos, Red Pandas are being bred to maintain the genetic diversity that will make them hardy if and when they need to be introduced into dwindling populations in the wild. 

Zoos that participate in the Species Survival Plan also support efforts to preserve the Red Panda’s natural habitat in Asia and to find ways for Red Pandas in the wild to live in minimal conflict with humans. The Reid Park Zoo in Tucson plans to help in these efforts by joining the Species Survival Plan when the Zoo adds Red Pandas to its collection of endangered species in its Pathway to Asia expansion.  And of course when the Red Pandas arrive, the Zoo will be adding a large helping of adorably cute!

Have you ever gotten close enough to see the hair on a baby elephant’s body?  Reid Park Zoo guests have, three times now!

Sundzu and his mother, the herd’s Matriarch Litsemba, came to Tucson in 2012 when he was just one year old and still nursing.  He wowed guests with his curious nature and large eyes. 

Only two years later, in 2014, Sundzu’s little sister was born in the Reid Park Zoo on Tucson’s birthday, and she immediately stole the show! Newborn Nandi always wanted to be around all the other members of the herd, which included her Aunt Lungile, her mother, her big brothers and her almost 13,000- pound Dad, Mabu. Nandi has been adventurous from the start and didn’t hesitate to jump right into the mud wallows with her much larger family members. Luckily she was never smushed. Her family has always taken great care of her. And now she’s a big sister!

On April 6, 2020 the Reid Park Zoo welcomed their second “real native Tucsonan” African elephant calf, Mapenzi. Her birth brought joy and hope to Tucson during a very difficult period of the Pandemic, and she’s been continuing her good work ever since. 

Just about 30 minutes after her birth, Penzi somehow coordinated her legs to stand tall enough to nurse from Tucson’s largest Mom. Penzi, like all babies, learns by observing her family, and she has been on a steep learning curve since April of last year. A very important lesson she mastered early is that the elephant care team gives great scratches and tasty treats! You’ll usually see Penzi at her mother’s side, or just a couple trunks’ lengths away from Nandi, watching her closely. It’s safe to say Nandi is her little sister’s favorite elephant. And Nandi has shown Mapenzi everything from walking backwards, to foraging for treats in the puzzle feeder walls, and just last week, the most advanced move yet: How much fun it is to slip and slide down the hillside into the moat!

The Reid Park Zoo’s visitors and online followers have endless opportunities to observe and learn about elephants and how a breeding herd grows and lives together. The elephant expansion was carefully built with green technology, and with one thing in mind: what elephants need to take care of themselves and engage in natural behaviors. There are acres of varied terrain with shade for foraging, mud wallows, a gigantic 98,000 gallon pool and just the perfect mix of dirt mounded for dust bathing in several areas. Also, the keepers provide enrichment – ways to keep the herd physically and mentally active every day by adding variety and surprise to this beautiful habitat. For example, they might bring a  in new log or tree trunk (fun for stepping over or dragging around, or stripping the bark from it for a snack) that wasn’t there yesterday, or maybe a new type of treat hidden in surprise locations. Sometimes Mother Nature helps out too!

The Reid Park Zoo elephant ambassadors are safe and well cared for by their rockstar animal care staff and adored by the public. However, their cousins in the wilds of Africa need our help preserving their habitat and also our protection from poaching.   

The Reid Park Zoo works in partnerships around the world and at home to protect wildlife and wild places. A portion of your admission and memberships dollars are set aside to help with in-situ conservation. An important part of the Zoo’s conservation funding goes to the Tanzania Conservation and Science Program to support Dr. Charles Foley’s work with the African Elephant. Also, the Zoo is happy to provide guests with information about an organization called 96-elephants. This group supports efforts against elephant poaching, and their name is based on a sad statistic: on average, 96 elephants are killed every day to support the ivory trade.

Mabu, the Zoo’s huge and majestic bull elephant, has recently been heard trumpeting  the news that on March 25th The International Union for Conservation of Nature updated their listing of African elephants. There is new consensus by scientists of the IUCN to list two groups of African elephant species. The African savanna elephant is endangered and the African forest elephant is listed Critically Endangered. Many in the field believe this new distinction will help focus and strengthen conservation efforts locally and internationally.

There is still much work to be done.

And this is how the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion is for the greater good. The expansion will connect guests with even more wild animal ambassadors in gorgeous naturalistic habitats that bring out each animal’s natural instincts and behaviors. The Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and in 2019 AZA Zoos and Aquariums sent $230 million to in-situ conservation around the world. With your help, RPZ will continue growing their conservation funding.   

Why not join in? Come enjoy the coolness of shade trees as you relax and  observe Litsemba’s amazing breeding herd this summer.

Hot Tip: Reid Park Zoo elephants love to swim when it rains. This summer Mapenzi is sure to work up the nerve to join the rest of the herd in their pool. It will be a joy to see her little trunk, kind of like a periscope, come up out of the water to breathe! 

A New Wild Cat is Coming to Tucson

That’s not a typo, that space between Wild and Cat.  Although he may resemble Wilbur, our University of Arizona bobcat—they both have that lovely curlicue on their foreheads—this new wild cat is a Fishing Cat. And he’s got the paws to prove it! 

Fishing Cats are one of about 33 small wild cat species living throughout the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Unlike his southwest desert cousin who chases land-based prey like rabbits and mice, the Fishing Cat stalks the riverbanks of mangrove swamps in Asia, looking for its favorite food—fish! About twice the size of a domestic cat and equipped with webbed front paws and dense, compact fur to keep it warm in cold water, this wild cat is perfectly designed for diving head-first into the water and catching fish, both for food and fun. 

Because Fishing Cats are small, and some would say less charismatic than their larger cousins—visualize this little kitty beside a lion, tiger, cheetah, or leopard—they have long been out-competed for conservation dollars. Long-term studies are scarce and sightings of these cats have been so rare that some researchers believe they have become extinct in parts of their geographical range. Only in the past twenty years have scientists caught glimpses of these elusive creatures through accidental sightings or serendipitous camera trap shots. 

In the wetlands and mangrove forests of South and Southeast Asia, the array of plants and animals that share this ecosystem is staggering! Fishing Cats are just one part of a complex food chain that includes shorebirds, sea birds, otters, turtles, shellfish, and even crab-eating macaques. The amazing mangrove forests in which they live and keep tidy serve as a buffer, or bridge, between life that thrives in freshwater and life that thrives in the sea. And depend on it: In such a complex system, the survival of each species is intricately dependent on the others.

One thing is for certain: We are only beginning to discover the critical part this cat plays in maintaining the health of the mangrove forests. How important are these forests? In the words of University of Arizona Research Scientist and former Rachel Carson Scholar, Dr. Ashwin Naidu, within these gnarly, amazing root systems, the mangroves can store up to five to ten times more carbon dioxide than tropical rainforests.

So situated in one of the most important ecosystems on our planet, each stocky little Fishing Cat lives a solitary life, only coming together briefly once a year for breeding. Because they live such secretive lives, we don’t fully understand them or their capacity for adaptation. Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, in large part due to habitat loss. The lucrative financial forces of commercial fishing—our voracious appetite for farmed shrimp and farmed crabs—have diminished their range and ability to breed. 

But their plight has not gone unnoticed. More scientists are now taking a good, hard look at the key role these cats play in maintaining the health of their ecosystem. Some field researchers have had success with conservation projects that prioritize the needs of both the animals and the communities that surround them, but, as populations in the wild decrease faster than this species can procreate, zoos will also play a vital role in preventing their outright extinction.

The Association for Zoos and Aquariums has created a Species Survival Plan, or SSP, which will help keep the Fishing Cats’ gene pool safe and healthy. As zoos learn more about the cat’s biology and its needs, that knowledge will be shared with research scientists working in the field. Their gene pool will be protected for as long as it takes to ensure they can thrive, once again, in a safe and protected wild environment, free from the threat of extinction. 

As a lifelong cat lover, I am thrilled that the Fishing Cat will be coming to Tucson as part of the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia expansion, and I hope you’re excited to meet this new ambassador for small cat species everywhere. As sentinels to a part of the planet we don’t fully understand, their story will give us a window into a world that now demands our attention and our protection. 

So rally round, all you Wildcat fans, and give a warm welcome to the newest wild cat in town, the Asian Fishing Cat! 

The Reid Park Zoo, and all other AZA-accredited zoos, are much more than “living museums.”   They are vibrant, beautiful destinations with an urgent mission.   It’s important to the Reid Park Zoo that you come and visit, and they’ll help you do it.

Why?   Because just by visiting, you’ll be helping to support conservation efforts and sustainable living.   This will be even more significant when the Pathway to Asia expansion becomes a reality, because there will be many more endangered species you’ll be supporting simply by coming to the Zoo to see them.

Reaching Out to the Community

The Zoo has many community outreach programs, partnering with charities and non-profits, because they understand that doing good for community means doing good for the animals and the environment!      You probably already know that thousands of schoolchildren visit the Reid Park Zoo for free every year, and you may have heard about special events the Zoo offers.  

One example is Dream Night.  It’s a free evening at the Zoo just for children with any kind of healthcare or mobility challenges along with their families.  Nobody needs to worry about accessibility or stigma.  RPZ partners with the Desert Museum to host Dream Night in alternating years.   It’s a wonderful, well-attended event, and creates treasured memories for the families who attend, but also for the Zoo staff and volunteers.   

But what about something for individuals or families?   Maybe you don’t have a whole morning or afternoon to go to the Zoo or chaperone a field trip for one of your children.     Maybe you don’t feel you can afford the tickets.   Maybe you’re differently abled and worry that you might not be able to get around comfortably.  Maybe you just need a quick pick-me-up during your lunch hour.  

The Reid Park Zoo has you covered

Can you visit the Zoo FOR FREE?

Yes!   Take advantage of the Pima County Public Library’s Culture Pass Program.   Go to your local library, and see how you can get free tickets to visit the Zoo.   The Zoo donates about 6,000 of these free tickets every year.   Right now, due to Covid restrictions, you’ll need a reservation to enter the  Reid Park Zoo at a certain time. Go to the website for more information on the Culture Passes and all the other community-access programs of the RPZ.

Dollar Day

In conjunction with Reid Park’s Family Festival in the Park, the Zoo offers $1 admission.  (This program has been paused due to Covid – but they plan bring it back soon!)  Stay tuned.  

What if you receive SNAP or WIC assistance?

The Reid Park Zoo has very low admission prices for such a wonderful place and especially compared to other accredited zoos in the U.S.      But if you receive food assistance, this can help make a Zoo visit even more affordable.  Just show your EBT card to the front gate, and you’ll be eligible for a $4 discount on up to 7 tickets.  That means you can buy an adult ticket for just $6.50, a child for just $2.50, and a senior for just $4.50.  No charge for those under 2 .

What if you’re differently abled?

You should go to the Zoo!   The Reid Park Zoo meets all ADA guidelines.   If you don’t like big crowds, they can advise you of the best times to visit.  There are stroller and wheelchair rentals.   The RPZ allows trained service animals to accompany you (except inside the aviaries, where lots of birds are just walking around).   The website even has a map to identify areas where the sensory experiences (sounds, smells, and so on) might be a bit more intense.

How can you visit The Reid Park Zoo if you only have a short break or are stuck at your computer?    

How about checking out the ZooCams?  You can see Giraffes, lions, elephants and even lemurs and grizzlies!    See their real-time behaviors during the day –  and all you have to do is log into the Zoo’s website and watch for as long as you like.  The website also offers lots of information about each of the animals you’re seeing.

These programs to help you connect to the Reid Park Zoo are an important part of a greater good the Zoo pursues every day.  They’re committed to welcoming as many Tucsonans as possible, spreading the word about conservation, and continuing to provide world-class care to the animals in their charge.  But these animals need help from all of us.    Go to the Zoo and be a part of it!

If you’re a regular visitor the Reid Park Zoo, you’ve probably noticed that somehow you feel better there, and better after the visit.   What’s going on?

Maybe:

  •  You visited zoos as a child, and visiting the Reid Park Zoo brings back many positive memories
  • You love being outdoors, especially in an environment where you can find shade and places to rest in the middle of a hot Tucson day.  
  • You need to interact with nature
  • You like to get exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise
  • You’re  stressed out and need an escape from the pace and obligations of your urban lifestyle
  •  You’re worried about climate change and want to find out how you can help mitigate its effects
  • You want recreation that’s not just good for you but beneficial to the community
  • Or, it’s just uplifting to spend time in a place where people are feeling happy and positive

What if you have high blood pressure? 

You’ve probably heard of the many research studies verifying the positive effects on our health of  gardening or having pets in the home, but not everyone is able to care for pets or has the strength to garden.   It turns out that visiting a zoo can also have these effects.  Psychologists and physiologists are beginning to study the positive health impacts of spending time in a zoo (like the Reid Park Zoo) where the environment is beautiful and the animals are well treated.  A study in Japan has actually documented the physical effects of visiting a zoo – reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) as well as blood pressure readings.

It’s not news that exercise is beneficial for all of us, especially for children who may spend more and more of their days on “screen time.” It’s not always easy to reach that magic number of 10,000 steps per day – but it’s much easier to do when you’re walking through a safe environment, looking forward to a new wonder around every corner.  A visit to the Reid Park Zoo will allow you to get those steps in without really even noticing it.   You can stop and rest whenever you need to – but odds are, while you’re sitting on a bench in a shady spot, you’ll still be able to see one or more species playing, lounging, eating, or watching YOU with some interest.

You’re Not the Only One Who Feels Better

It’s well established that for many people, interaction with animals can be a great help in recovering from illness or injury, or as a treatment for anxiety and depression.  But did you know that zoos that were closed for a period of time during the pandemic discovered that zoo visitors are also important to the animals’ health and well being? 

 It’s nice to know that the Reid Park Zoo’s Meerkats, who are always on watch, will always be happy to see you and alert the mob that you’re nearby.    You will also be cheering up the marvelous Lar Gibbon, definitely the gregarious Sulpher-crested Cockatoo, and countless other creatures there.

Visiting the Reid Park Zoo will definitely do you some good.  How about taking a friend,  a child, or an  elderly neighbor so you can spread the benefits?

We invite you to join us in feeling better and doing more good by supporting the Reid Park Zoo’s  Pathway to Asia expansion!