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

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles

Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.


A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.

So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.


A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.

It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: An eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.


Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.

Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch them themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).


Two bald eagles perched on a tree.

Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: The male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.


Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.

Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.


Two bald eagles in their large nest.

Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.


Two bald eagles in their large nest.

In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weigh about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.


A bald eagle flies across the water.

People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.


Baby eagle chicks in a nest.

Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.


An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.

You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.


A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.

It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.


Close-up of a bald eagle's face.

What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.


A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.

If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.


A bald eagle

There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet

Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]


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