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Utah's Hogle Zoo: Fun and educational experiences abound for young and old alike

I think my eldest nephew (who just graduated from medical school) was 5 the last time I went to the zoo. Every summer I would think about going, but life gets busy and I’d forget about the zoo — until I started looking for topics for Classroom Connections and discovered June is National Zoo and Aquarium month. Perfect! I now had a reason to go to the zoo on work time instead of trying to squeeze it into my packed schedule.

I prepared for my visit by researching zoos in general and Hogle Zoo in particular. Zoos have been around for thousands of years, though early collections were privately owned by the wealthy to show off their status and were called menageries.

Public zoos became popular around the 18th century in Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment: an intellectual movement that promoted reason, logic and science — which included zoology. People became more interested in studying animal behavior and anatomy. Zoos today remain focused on education and conservation as wildlife’s existence and habitats become increasingly threatened.

Hogle Zoo’s website, www.hogle, is packed with information. The historical timeline is full of interesting tidbits. I particularly enjoyed the entries about the first elephant at the zoo, Princess Alice. Alice, an Asian elephant, was purchased from a traveling circus in 1916 with donations from local schoolchildren for $3,250. The zoo was located at Liberty Park in those days, and Alice managed to break out of her compound more than once. Reports say she was seen “wandering 700 East — often “wearing” on her back an odd assortment of clothing from the neighborhoods’ clotheslines.”

I also found out that Hogle Zoo has loads of classes and summer camps available for kids and adults, such as the Zoo Keeper Camp where kids 12-17 can get a hands-on, behind the scenes experience. The Animal Encounters allow anyone age 5 or older to feed the giraffes or birds. They even have a book club.

With a basic knowledge of the zoo, I felt ready to meet up with the zoo’s community relations coordinator, Erica Hansen. Erica offered to drive me around the zoo to answer my questions and show me how much the zoo has changed in the years since my last visit. I think it is important to mention at this point that I am an artist, not a reporter at the Deseret News. Asking pertinent and interesting questions is not my forte. As soon as we climbed in the golf cart and started the tour, I forgot most of what I read on the website and all of the questions I had considered asking. It felt like I spent the following 45 minutes appearing semi-interested in what I was seeing. In reality, I loved it, but I was silently struggling to think of something intelligent to ask. Surprisingly, though, I did learn a lot from Erica.

I learned that the animals at the zoo are mainly acquired from other zoos and breeding programs, and quite a few of the animals are rescue animals that would not survive in the wild. Big Guy, a 650-pound sea lion in residence, is blind, and the three grizzly bears are siblings from Yellowstone whose mother had to be put down because she was too aggressive.

Erica also offered a few tips on visiting the zoo. She advises you arrive early. The animals are more active before the day gets hot — and it is easier to park.

She also said to make your first stop at guest services. There are numerous activities scheduled throughout the day. Staff members can tell you when and where or point you to what is new at the zoo.

Once my tour was over and our staff photographer, Jeff Allred, arrived, I relaxed and the fun really began.

Erica, Jeff and I headed over to the giraffes where one of the Animal Encounters was scheduled to begin. We were allowed into the small enclosure where patrons can pay $40-$49 to feed the giraffes on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I was a few feet away from these beautiful creatures. Jeff was directly under the female adult’s head at one point and it was awesome! After the feeding, we thanked Erica and headed out on our own to photograph other animals. Here’s where my zoo tips come in.

Tip one: if you are unfamiliar with the grounds, grab a map at the entrance gate. Once my personal tour guide left, I quickly missed the trail to where I wanted to go.

Tip two: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are numerous, friendly volunteers and staff on the grounds who are happy to help or tell you interesting facts. For instance, did you know that giraffes can run 30 to 35 mph?

Jeff and I had a blast. We were mesmerized by the polar bear swimming and pushing itself off the rocks to float on its back. You are so close you can see movement of its fur in the water.

The ring-tailed lemurs were about to be fed just as we were about to leave the primate building. We stayed and watched them leaping about, grabbing chunks of fruit that had been scattered about the enclosure.

Even the orangutan chilling in his tree made us smile. I think we were as entertained by the animals as any 5-year-old running about.

I learned a lot during the two hours I spent at the zoo, such as two hours isn’t enough time to see everything. But here’s the best thing I learned: Going to the zoo is great therapy, no matter what your age. Wild animals are fascinating, beautiful and hysterical. By the time I got back to my office, I was the happiest I have been in weeks.