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A ground squirrel at the San Diego Zoo. Markus Jöbstl via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

15 Animals You’d Be Surprised to Find in Zoos

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A ground squirrel at the San Diego Zoo. Markus Jöbstl via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Pandas, jaguars, white tigers: These are the kinds of exotic species we expect to see at zoos. But salmon? Guinea pigs? Why would a zoo choose to house such garden-variety animals?

The answer lies in the evolution of zoos themselves. What began as a way for rich people to collect and showcase wild animals has grown into a vehicle for conservationism and education. And what better way to attract visitors—and commit them to your cause—than through animals they already feel a kinship to, and which are safe enough to see up close?

Here, then, are 15 animals you might be surprised to find in a zoo.

1. DONKEY

Flash the donkey. Cliff via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

One of the easiest ways visitors can forge connections with animals is through children’s zoos, where young visitors can interact with domestic species such as the four male miniature Mediterranean donkeys that live on the Kids’ Farm at the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C (just across from their "Giant Pizza Playground"—they definitely know how to cater to the kids!). Children can actually pet these four-legged furry friends, all of which are around 14 years old and sport names like Giuseppe and Flash.

2. COW

Like children’s zoos, family farms allow children to experience domestic animals up close, while also giving the kids a lesson on where their food comes from. Visitors to Minnesota Zoo’s Wells Fargo Family Farm in Apple Valley, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis, can learn all about milk production thanks to the farm’s small herd of cows, which includes this Jersey milking cow named Olivia. Visitors can watch Olivia and her fellow bovines being milked throughout the day; they can also pet the cows from outside their stalls while they’re eating.

3. HOUSE FLY

Mammals aren’t a zoo's only big draw—insectariums, which house insects and arthropods, are also popular attractions at many animal parks. The Monsanto Insectarium at the Saint Louis Zoo offers visitors a look at more than 100 bugs, including butterflies, dragonflies, and the common house fly!

4. ANT

For some zoos, their bug collection can actually be the main event. The ZSL London Zoo offers kids the chance to stay overnight in its BUG House with its BedBUGS Sleepovers events. A big highlight of the evening? Seeing these small brown leafcutter ants walking back and forth along ropes, carrying leaves up to 50 times their own body weight.

5. SALMON

Recent design trends have seen zoos grouping animals by geographic location as opposed to species, and developing large, open spaces in which they can live as they do in the wild. The Oregon Zoo in Portland has devoted one such exhibit, Eagle Canyon, to two of the region’s most iconic animals: the bald eagle and the coho salmon. Like its exhibit-mate, the coho salmon is listed as a threatened species in some areas, thanks to overfishing and logging, making its inclusion in the Oregon Zoo all the more important.

6. GROUND SQUIRREL

Sometimes a zoo’s inhabitants can aid in the conservation of another species altogether. Staffers at the San Diego Zoo and its parent company, San Diego Zoo Global, have been experimenting with the relationship between burrowing owls, now at risk, and California ground squirrels. Noticing that the owls sometimes nested in vacated ground squirrel burrows, the zoo released 350 of its squirrels into the surrounding areas, as part of a long-term plan to rebuild the local owl population.

7. HONEY BEE

Why keep this ubiquitous pollinator at a zoo when you could easily see it in your backyard? Because bee colonies are on the decline, thanks to pesticides, global warming and a strange phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. The new hives established and maintained at the Cincinnati Zoo push back against this alarming trend. They even have their own beekeepers—made up of zoo staff and volunteers—called Pollen Nation.

8. RACCOON

Although their inclusion at the Greater Vancouver Zoo isn't as exotic as the Eurasian Lynx or the Sugar Glider that also live there, the raccoons housed at the zoo illustrate a major service modern zoos provide: sanctuary for animals in need. These particular raccoons were originally orphans, and were adopted by the GV Zoo from another facility that lacked the room to keep them.

9. SWAN

The trumpeter swan is one of nature’s best comeback stories: Hunted to the verge of extinction in the 1930s, it gained protected status and has since regrown its population to healthy levels. With its habitats now under threat thanks to the destruction of the wetlands, parks like the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore play an important part in preserving this graceful creature once again. Five trumpeter babies—the zoo’s first—just hatched this past May; once they’re a year old, they’ll be released into the wilds of Iowa, which has been rebuilding its swan population for the past two decades.

10. PRAIRIE DOG

Visitors to New York's Bronx Zoo can’t pet or feed the Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs on display in its Children’s Zoo, but thanks to an ingenious exhibit, they can still view them up close and personal. Tunnels pass under the exhibit and end in glass tubes that pop up throughout the prairie dogs’ burrows. Wide enough to fit two or three young zoogoers, the tubes allow kids a rodents’-eye view of the animals in their natural habitat.

11. CHICKEN

It’s not just kids who can learn things at children’s zoos. Aspiring urban farmers can attend zookeeper talks on owning and raising chickens at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Not to be left out, younger visitors can hand-feed these farmyard favorites in the zoo’s My Big Backyard exhibit.

12. TILAPIA

One of the more common fish to end up in your local supermarket, tilapia are a highly valued member of the Calgary Zoo’s ecosystem. The zoo populates its indoor hippo tank—the largest in North America—with these fish, which are often found swimming around the aquatic mammals in their natural African habitat. In captivity, the tilapia act as natural tank cleaners by feeding on the hippos' waste.

13. PIGEON

Homesick urban tourists may well be cheered by the domestic pigeons housed at the Zoo Vienna in Austria. Although the birds congregate in coops rather than on, say, public monuments, visitors can still get their birdwatching fix via the public pigeon feedings the zoo offers every morning.

14. COCKROACH

A giant burrowing cockroach—large cousin to those nasty bugs you’ve seen skittering across the kitchen—makes for part of the Backyard to Bush exhibit featured at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. The exhibit’s purpose is to educate children on all the animals—creepy and crawly as well as furry and cuddly—they might come across in everyday life.

15. GUINEA PIG

These rodents, which make popular pets back in the States, provide Japan’s Nagasaki Bio Park with one of its best attractions. When it's time for the guinea pigs to retire from the petting zoo to their private nest, zoo staffers lay down a wooden bridge that allows the fluffy animals to walk home. Visitors can catch this guinea pig commute every afternoon.

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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