Tidewater Day Tripping - August 2008

Tidewater Day Tripping:
Strolling Through the Salisbury Zoo
Bonna L. Nelson

    Birds were singing, snakes were slithering, monkeys were swinging, buffaloes were swaying, alligators were sunning, and wolves were scampering near a branch of the Wicomico River in downtown Salisbury, MD. Under the cover of frothy, fuzzy, pink-covered mimosa trees, black-beaked, salmon-hued flamingos strutted on spiky legs, watched by rainbow-colored macaws perched on the tree branches above. It was one of those rare summer days in Maryland when the humidity was low, the temperature only 75°, and a soft breeze beckoned me to go exploring.
     A flock of Canada geese with fuzzy new goslings waddled over to greet each arriving guest, looking for handouts before moving on to the next arrival at the Salisbury Zoological Park. Of course, as at any zoo, feeding the animals is prohibited, though some guests could be seen leaving mounds of bread chunks outside the zoo for the seemingly famished flock of hardworking greeters.
     Bordered on one side by the entrance road, South Park Drive, and on the other by the Wicomico River branch called Southern Prong, the tree-canopied Salisbury Zoo feels intimate and secluded, not at all like a zoo in the middle of the Eastern Shore’s largest city. Benches are scattered throughout the park, welcoming visitors to rest, observe and meditate. Some paths are paved, some wooden, and some pine needled or woodchip covered. All seemed easily traversed by young and old alike, as well as by the visiting parents with strollers and grandparents with canes, walkers or wheelchairs.
     After visiting with the gaggle of geese, I strolled through the herb garden with the bumblebees and chipmunks, enjoying the scents of the mint, sage, lavender, yarrow and rosemary. Two sunbathing alligators eyed me lazily from their riverbank under a grove of bamboo as egrets pranced further up shore. A group of youngsters enjoyed trying to get the attention of a large, brownish black sloth hanging from a branch by all four appendages. The sloth, as you might expect, wasn’t interested in entertaining us.
     At the next habitat two 4-foot silver iguanas lounging on rocks eyed a green-winged macaw. Prancing near the water over the fence were the American flamingos dressed in shades of coral and white.
     The small Visitor’s Center, staffed by youth and adult volunteers, housed tanks of snakes, toads, frogs and salamanders. Some hands-on opportunities, for those not faint of heart, included feeling a snake’s skin and a turtle shell. Posters provided more information about the reptiles, and the volunteers also offered information as I cruised around the room. I learned that the nationally accredited Zoo was “born” in 1954 and improved in the 1970s with naturalistic enclosed habitats for the collection of North, Central and South American native species. The Salisbury Zoo is staffed by Salisbury City employees.
     A sleeping spotted ocelot would not give me the time of day, but as waterfowl do, the Emperor geese, Canada geese and mallards on a nearby shore and in the water shouted raucously to passersby.
     Observing all of God’s creatures made me hungry and thirsty, so I headed to the Ocelot Spot Gift Shop. After passing on purchasing fair trade items offered for sale, such as hand-made jewelry, as well as educational toys, stuffed animals, books, wildlife apparel and T-shirts, I spotted what I was after. Ice cream!! A freezer filled with ice cream sandwiches and a frozen fruit-flavored concoction brought out my wallet, and I received enough change to purchase a bottle of water from the soft drink vending machine outside.
     Salisbury Zoo does not sell real food, so pack a picnic lunch if you need to eat. There are also some soft drink vending machines at the front of the Zoo.
     The Gift Shop is situated in a lovely peaceful spot under an umbrella of tall pines and deciduous trees, surrounded by gardens of rhododendron and hydrangea. The benches in a circle outside the shop beckon the weary to rest, savor the shade, the breeze, and the bird serenade and enjoy the wonders of nature.
     Next, I observed the coati, a raccoon/anteater-like animal of the tropics with a long striped tail. And then on to the sleeping brownish black spectacled bear. The South American bear, a long-time Zoo favorite and highlight, was curled up in a ball in his habitat, so I didn’t really get to see what all the fuss is about. He did have one of the largest habitats with many trees, rocks, small ponds, large grounded branches, an exercise rope and even a hammock. A sign said that he had been exhibiting bad behavior lately and was being retrained.
     I increased my pace to quickly reach the noise coming from the next animal home. Kids at the black-handed spider monkey exhibit were squealing with glee as the monkeys swung from trees and ropes. Monkeys are always entertaining to young and old alike, and there were smiles on the faces of the growing crowd.
     The highlight of the current crop of exhibits has to be the new Patricia Hazel Delmarva Trail formally opened on Earth Day, April 19, 2008. One of the most natural settings in the Zoo houses the newly acquired male and female red wolves who mated and produced five pups shortly after the opening. And you might think, as I did when I read about them, what is the big deal about wolves? They aren’t very exotic.
     Well, the natural setting of trees, rocks, brush, fallen branches and the mounded rocky wolf cave in the center of the compound compliments the noble wolf parents roaming the grounds. The animals can be watched from an enclosed observation room with glass panels facing the cave. And, what was that little furry thing on top of the cave? And, what were those small shadows passing inside the two-entranced cave? Then there they were – three lively little cubs prancing around the cave and two shyer cubs poking their heads out of one of the cave entrances. Mother Nature at her best – puppies playing and nuzzling up to mom and dad.
     The signs at the red wolf habitat said that the wolves are usually active early in the morning, but I had an early afternoon delight. And, the visiting adults and children in the observation room with me were all excited by the sight.
     The other Delmarva Trail exhibit housed white-tailed deer, peacocks and large turkeys. By now I was anxious to see one of my favorite animals, the llama. But first I passed the guanaco, which is an ancestor of the llama and looks like it. Then there were three large lumbering bison, probably the largest animals in the Salisbury Zoo.
     The horned, shaggy-haired, coffee-before-cream-colored bison seemed hot and bothered in their sand-based ranch-type pen. They are massive, majestic beasts worthy of study.
     My llamas were down by the river. One was pure white, one black and white, and one brown. A zoo staffer told us that they had just been sheared to help them tolerate the heat. I knew that they are from the Andes Mountains of Peru and handle colder climates better, but with the combination of being sheared and having access to the river to cool off, they must be happy campers. They did seem to like to hang out in the shade of their hut or under the trees and wouldn’t come close enough for me to talk to them.
     A walking bridge juts out over the river to enable visitors to get a different view of the llamas, the sandy beach lining the river at that point and the many waterfowl gracing the beach and water. In addition to mallards and Canada geese, brants, Tundra swans and lesser snow geese preened on the beach or floated by.
     After the birds of prey next to the llamas, the habitat exhibits end and there is a playground and more parking. I parked at the opposite entrance, across the street from a golf course and a ball park. I returned to my car with no geese gaggle to say goodbye and drove back down South Park Drive. I noticed the beautiful Salisbury City Park, also along the banks of the Wicomico South Prong and next to the Zoo, on my right. With many tall shade trees, grass, pedestrian bridges, fountains, a bandstand (used for summer concerts on Sundays), picnic tables, children’s playgrounds and tennis courts, it would be a lovely place to picnic before or after the Zoo trip. It looked like many people had the same idea.
     For adventurers interested in a structured Zoo stroll, a map of the more than 30 exhibits is available at the entrance to the 13-acre park. Signs at most of the animal habitats provide some information about each species. The admission is free (donations appreciated) and the Zoo is open every day of the year at 8 a.m., except for a few holidays. More information about the animals, a Zoo map, directions, hours, group tours, ZooCamp, Zoo parties, memberships and animal sponsorships is available at www.salisburyzoo.org or by telephone at 410-548-3188.