As you may have notice at LEAP this week, we don’t quite have the building to ourselves. Luckily, every week, we get to share the building with quite a few cute and playful friends—the animals! All of the animals that call the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo home are native to North America. It’s the perfect place to wrap up our LEAP adventure this spring, because we get to spend time outside, watching things grow! As you spend the next 5 weeks exploring the Children’s Zoo and making new discoveries at our LEAP stations, don’t forget to get to know our four-legged, feathered, and buck-toothed pals. We’d like to take the time to introduce you to the animals that you’ll be playing side-by-side with this spring. If there’s anything you’d like to know about these amazing creatures, just ask!
North American River Otters are one of the most playful animals that live at Lincoln Park Zoo. Our pair, a male and female, are often found swimming laps in their indoor/outdoor pool. They love to watch little LEAP-ers building towers and having fun with blocks—especially the brightly colored ones! River otters can survive in rivers, of course, but can also be found in lakes and swamps and feel just as at home on land as they do in the water. Their smooth, water-resistant fur, webbed feet, and long, narrow bodies make them excellent swimmers. If you see them using a slide in their exhibit, you might think it looks a bit unnatural, but river otters in the wild are often observed sliding down icy or muddy hills, ending with a big SPLASH in the water below. A trip to the Children’s Zoo isn’t complete without a stop by to say “Hi!” to Odie and Annie!
When you first arrive at LEAP, you walk right past the outdoor Red Wolf exhibit. You probably notice that it’s full of trees, tall grasses, and large rocks, making it tough to spot the wolves sometimes. This exhibit was designed to make them tricky to spot, as Lincoln Park Zoo participated for many years in a red wolf reintroduction program, releasing young wolf pups into the wild to grow and thrive. In order to manage a successful reintroduction, the wolves shouldn’t be used to seeing people, so this exhibit is perfect for hiding away from the public eye. Though we don’t have pups at the zoo anymore, you just might get lucky enough to spot one of our two wolves traipsing around their exhibit or hear them howling in tune with the sirens of cars passing by.
Right inside the front doors of Children’s Zoo lives a curious creature called an American Kestrel. Kestrels are birds of prey, meaning that they like to dine on insects, mice, lizards, and smaller birds more than they like berries and seeds. If you stop by and say “Hello,” to House, the kestrel living in Children’s Zoo, you may notice something a little different about him. House only has one foot, when most birds have two! He sustained an injury in the wild that made him unable to survive on his own, so he recovered here at Lincoln Park Zoo where he will live out the rest of his days. Almost all animals that live in AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoos were either born in a zoo or rescued from the wild, where they wouldn’t have been able to survive on their own. House likes to keep a close eye on visitors, so make sure you go check him out to see if he’s looking at you, too!
Many animals in the Children’s Zoo have exhibits that are the perfect size for you and your child to investigate together. They are built to be at the right height for children to observe as animals like smooth green snakes, American bullfrogs, newts, green tree frogs, box turtles, and even walking sticks. These animals all have special features of their own, from the smooth green snakes uncanny ability to camouflage to the tree frogs’ amazing climbing skills. Sometimes you may look in an exhibit and think there isn’t anything there, but keep looking and you just might discover a creature hiding quietly beneath the surface.
On the far end of the building lives our small group of American beavers. If these nocturnal animals aren’t sleeping soundly during LEAP, you may catch a glimpse of them swimming back and forth in front of the glass or nibbling on a branch a keeper put out in their exhibit. You might be surprised at how big these buck-toothed beasts are—beavers can weigh anywhere from 24 to 71 pounds. It’s no surprise that they are strong though, as these animals are amazing builders, damming up rivers and streams in the wild and building impressive lodges that keep their families safe and warm during hard North American winters. Perhaps their most impressive adaptation is their large front teeth that never stop growing for their entire lives!! These teeth are filed down when they chew, which is why they do it so much. They are also self-sharpening, allowing them to gnaw into and take down an entire tree that they then use in one of their many building projects. The beavers at the zoo share their exhibit with mallards and wood ducks, co-existing peacefully, just as they do in the wild.
Last, but not least, three American black bears live in the outdoor exhibit at the back of the Children’s Zoo. These large omnivores can often be seen napping in front of the glass, cuddled up in a warm log, cooling off in the stream, or enjoying some delicious honey enrichment. It’s true, bears really do love honey! Lincoln Park Zoo is home to three male black bears that share the exhibit and indoor spaces. The exhibit is spacious enough that they are rarely seen close together, but in the wild black bears have been known to congregate near abundant food sources. There are many amazing adaptations of the American black bear, but their sense of smell is one of their most impressive attributes—one of the best in the animal kingdom. Black bears have an estimated smell range of 1-2 miles away! Some scientists believe it’s even greater than that. This powerful snout allows them to track down the tastiest grasses and buds from trees and shrubs as well as bees, ants, honey, and salmon. If you get a chance, check out the log near the edge of the exhibit and see if Papa Bear is snoozing away!
As you enjoy this time with your child, introduce them to these animals and some of their interesting adaptations. Think about what they would feel like if you touched them—do they look soft and smooth? Scaly? Bumpy? Describe the way they look—are they long and skinny or short and stout? Do they have brightly colored feathers or do they blend in to their environment? Observe these animals together and share your discoveries with us, we love seeing the animals through your eyes!
--Emily Van Laan