Way back in January, when Lisa and I drove out to the suburb of Issaquah to hike Cougar Mountain, we noticed various signs saying, rather cryptically, "ZOO". When I looked up more information, I discovered that there was a zoo in Issaquah. Small and unheralded, perhaps, in the shadow of its local big brother Woodland Park, but nevertheless it had an impressive array of animals, including tigers, reindeer, and, of course, cougars.
It took us a while to finally visit-- besides just being generally busy, Lisa also carefully researched the zoo's accreditation in order to ensure that we could spend our money there in good conscience-- but finally, last weekend we headed down to check it out.
The zoo is small, but well-built, with an intimate feel to it that larger zoos lack. Every half an hour or hour, there's a keeper talk somewhere on the premises, and the smaller crowd means you can basically have a conversation with them. In the three hours we were there, we saw the wallabies, tigers, and cougars get fed, as well as a bird show with several macaws.
Despite it being a small zoo, the animal exhibits were still fairly spacious, particularly the tigers and cougars, who had large, naturalistic habitats. Most of the exhibits were surrounded with metal bars-- as opposed to the plexiglass you often see at modern zoos-- but the bars are actually more photography-friendly in many cases, since you can blur them out with proper use of depth of field, while plexiglass gets dirty and scratched and often becomes impossible to shoot through.
There was also a lot of hands-on opportunity at the Cougar Mountain Zoo. At about half the exhibits, you could actually feed the animals-- you could feed emus, cranes, alpacas, and mule deer. So much visitor feeding meant the animals were very accustomed to humans, which isn't always a good thing, but none of those particular animals were being rehabilitated for the wild, and it made for some great photo opportunities. I must admit I was amused by the signs at many cages saying what the animals would do if you got too close, though.
I've gone to a lot of zoos this past year-- they're very fun to visit as a photographer-- and while on the one hand, I do feel guilty that so many animals are kept in confined spaces, on the other hand, I do feel like zoos play a vital role in inspiring kids to love nature and science; teaching the populace about the natural world; and encouraging conservation. In many cases zoos also play important roles in animal rehabilitation and repopulation efforts. The Cougar Mountain Zoo, for example, runs tree swallow and wood duck propagation programs.
So at least in modern America, I feel like zoos have a positive effect on the world. Even small ones, like the Cougar Mountain Zoo. If the crowds at Woodland Park are too big for you, you might consider taking a drive down to Issaquah and checking these folks out. The smaller, more intimate feel of the zoo is a nice change (kids in particular may enjoy it more). Admission is a bit pricey for what you get, but even small zoos are expensive to run well, and Cougar Mountain Zoo does feel like a well-run zoo, so I don't begrudge them the extra cost. And they're expanding; it will be interesting to visit in the future and see how the place has changed.