Get wild in the city: The Saint Louis Zoo

I’m like a kid when it comes to the Z-O-O. Mention those three letters in succession and I am prowling the Internet, in search of snow leopards and polar bears.

My husband’s latest assignment landed him in Saint Louis. I was able to visit after a few long months, and my first outing (after we spent a chilly evening exploring the city around the hotel), was to the St. Louis Zoo.

Bordered by Government Drive and Wells Drive in 1,371-acre Forest Park, the zoo is family-friendly, and mostly free. I parked on the outskirts, in order to bypass the parking fee, and walked nearly a mile before I asked a parent the grown-up equivalent of, “Are we there yet?” Just around the corner, was the reply, so I knew then I was heading in the right direction.

Looking back at the map now, I could have saved myself some time in finding the objects of my affection, because I apparently took the long way around. But there was much to see around every corner.

tall giraffe
No zoo visit is complete without seeing a few giraffes.

I found the Bird House and Bird Garden, which included a burrowing owl, and several Collie’s jays. I took pictures of both, but the jays are extremely lively and the owl was a bit too far away to get the snapshots as clear as I wanted.

I did manage a few peeks at Kali, the new bear on the block (he has lived at the zoo for less than a year). Popular with children, Kali was looking for treats that afternoon, and quickly found some.

polar bear looking
Kali was orphaned in the wild, but responds well to visitors.
polar bear yum
Kali enjoying an afternoon snack.

Once I made my way to Big Cat Country at Red Rocks, I began my search for snow leopards. I found one, sleeping comfortably, in the crook of a tall tree.

DSCN2304 (2)
Snow leopards are known for their big paws and long, bushy tails.

I also found a gorgeous Amur leopard, also napping the afternoon away. Amur leopards are even more rare than snow leopards; they are nearly extinct in the wild.

amur leopard
Breathtakingly beautiful, Amur leopards are also known as Far East leopards. They are critically endangered.

No less beautiful, but more intent on exploring its habitat, was a nearby jaguar.

Unlike some of the other big cats, this jaguar was wide awake.

I made a few more trips to see the snow and the Amur leopard before I left the zoo. I missed seeing the cougar (who must have been sleeping away from prying eyes), and the tiger was awake, but not wanting to sit still for pictures.

The male lion, however, obliged.

daddy lion
This handsome fellow kept both eyes on me, until he became bored with my picture taking and moved away.
daddy lion mane
While the female hid in the shadows, her mate was more interested in finding a nice spot in the sun.

All good trips must come to an end, and I had to find my way back to the car. I headed out, as I had a long walk. I was amused on the way out by a gorilla, who was tossed a bag of goodies by a zookeeper. He grabbed the bag and ran, to enjoy his snack, out of sight.

gorilla gimme that
This Western lowland gorilla grabbed its lunch and disappeared.

Sossy and Tomiris

My husband, Bill, over-wintered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this year. It was the first time we had spent so much time apart since getting married several years ago. But he is a scientist, and must go where the jobs are. I was working in North Carolina, and as his was a contract job, it didn’t make sense for both of us to relocate.

I planned a week-long visit to see him, over Thanksgiving. We would spend a few days at the house he was renting, then travel to see his brother in Michigan for the actual holiday. I did some online research for places to visit on Monday and Tuesday, while he was at work. One of the first things that popped up on my screen was the Milwaukee County Zoo. As I flipped through the virtual pages, I gasped. The zoo had not one – but two snow leopards. A mother and baby. And tigers. How perfect. I could not believe my good fortune. The zoo was practically around the corner from where Bill was staying.

I have loved snow leopards since I first found out about them. I adore tigers, too, but snow leopards – sigh. Their heavy coats, their markings, their long, spotted tails, those huge feet! And their ability to blend into their background so as to be almost invisible in the stark Himalayas and other Asian habitats they live in, make them my favorite big cat. These endangered felines are found in 12 countries in Central Asia, and, as luck would have it, in roughly 70 zoos throughout the United States. Many of those zoos work in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust to care for and raise awareness of the rare, majestic cats.

I was so excited. I went shopping for clothes: toasty shirts and pants, layers, and warm accessories. I made sure to remember my wool coat, a warm scarf, and my camera and its charger.

Weather was iffy up North, so I was stalled overnight in Charlotte, so it was mid-Tuesday before I made my way to Milwaukee, and into the arms of my husband. We spent that evening catching up. He had to work Wednesday, but encouraged me to visit the zoo on my own. I vacillated. It was cold. No, freezing. I’d have to go alone. But I was so close to seeing snow leopards. In the end, I decided to go.

I layered up, and made it to the zoo, extremely early, on Wednesday, way before it opened. I consulted with my smart-phone, parked myself inside a fast-food restaurant, and sipped hot coffee. It was cold, very cold, to this North Carolina girl. In the 20s, and the wind was blowing. All the better for snow leopards, though!

The zoo finally opened, and at first it seemed deserted. I consulted my map, and set out looking for cats. I found the tigers first. The family consisted of a mother and two sisters, but they had to be displayed separately, as the girls apparently had a bad case of sibling rivalry. Oh my goodness. That gorgeous she-tiger paced around the enclosure, looking out at us humans who were busy gawking and snapping photos. Although my camera is just your basic point-and-shoot digital, I took lots of pictures and attempted a short video. After walking around the cat enclosure long enough to warm up, and satisfied with my photos, I set out to see the snow leopards. I saw the sign, walked around the corner, and there they were. Blocked at first by photographers with real cameras and lenses the length of my arm, I took a breath, and squeezed in toward the window. There they were.

Sossy and Tomiris

Tomiris, curled up inside a large log, had declared it naptime. Only her face was visible. She was adorable. I could see Sossy, the cub, just barely, positioning himself behind her. My simple cameras were not created for these conditions, but I managed a few decent shots. Then Sossy, in the way of toddlers everywhere, took advantage of his sleepy mother, crawled out of the log and began to explore. What luck! I snapped photos in awe, switching from my camera to my phone. I hoped and prayed for a few good snapshots.

It was darn cold that day, and the zoo closed at 4. I stayed as long as I could, marveling at the beauty of those beautiful big cats. I did manage to get some decent pictures, and a nice video of one of the tigers. On my way out, I discovered a toasty enclosure containing towering giraffes. I let my fingers thaw, and took more pictures. The trip was over too soon.

I have so many good memories of that day. I’m not a morning person, nor a fan of cold weather, and I’m not crazy about exploring new places by myself. But by choosing to do something outside my comfort zone, I saw my favorite animals up close, met a friendly, knowledgeable woman who spends so much free time at the zoo she knows most of the big cats by name, and rekindled a love of photography.

Each day offers all of us a number of choices. Not all are comfortable, or easy, or fit into our schedules as we would like. Sometimes, though, making a different choice proves worthwhile. You just have to make it.

Sossy, an adorable snow leopard cub, resided at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

6-5-15 – Just received a Facebook notice that Sossy, who just turned 1, passed away unexpectedly today. RIP, Sossy. You will be missed.