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Potawatomi Zoo

August 9, 2002

It’s only been a few days since two or three feral dogs found their way into South Bend’s Potawatomi Zoo. Once inside, the dogs entered the Australian exhibit, where they killed thirteen of the zoo’s fourteen wallabies and injured some other animals. Now at the entrance to the zoo a large rustic wreath of carefully woven sticks and flowers commemorates the lost ones.

If you know the zoo, you recall the Australian exhibit, a grassy, open-air home for kangaroos, their smaller cousins the wallabies, black swans, emu, and other birds. Visitors can watch from the perimeter — the other day my daughters and I spotted the female black swan and her five fuzzy gray cygnets, large now but still in their ugly duckling phase, sticking close to each other in the thick grass. It was good to see signs of life in the exhibit so soon after the attack. The adult male, a cantankerous fellow named Black Bart, was seriously injured fending off the dogs and is being tended in the zoo’s infirmary.

Once things settle down I’m sure they’ll reopen the path that winds through the middle of this large exhibit. The path is one of the zoo’s best features, taking you past the shady area where kangaroos rest on a summer day and along the small ravine where the wallabies would often gather. It curves by the pond and passes the grassy slope where the swans usually build their nest. I remember holding my oldest daughter high in the air there when she was four so she could count the eggs in the nest. From the path patient visitors had a good chance to see young wallabies jumping in and out of their mother’s pouches. People who looked very carefully would locate the smallest ones, joeys who might be almost entirely hidden. I remember seeing one who revealed no more than its small wedge of a face and several inches of tail at the top of its mother’s pouch. Sensing my presence, the joey was completely still the entire time I watched it.

I’ve visited Potawatomi Zoo several dozen times over the last few years, first with my older daughter and then with her sister, who has become our family’s great zoo fan. I’ve come to respect the zoo staff for careful planning and making good choices with what must be limited resources. They add new animals each year, and as in the older Australian area, most of the new or updated exhibits reward a careful watcher. For example, it’s great to see the squirrel monkeys face to face when they are indoors, in their traditional winter quarters, but in mild weather they are at their best, ranging nimbly across the highest and slenderest branches of the willow trees on their island home, far above the trumpeter swans that swim below on the pond. Or take a look at the beautiful new red panda that sometimes bounces around at ground level but often takes a long view on life from twenty-five or thirty feet up one of the spruce trees.

And don’t wait too long before you go to see the new lion cubs, those two curious and rambunctious brothers who must be about seven months old now and still have their youthful spots. As unlikely as it seems, the portly penguins are among the zoo’s most graceful creatures when they swim beneath the surface of their pool — “like airplanes,” my daughter said. I’m fond of the tiny blue poison dart frogs myself and their misty jungle enclosures. Even though ours is a small zoo, there are many animals and exhibits that are good to watch closely. I suppose it goes against the grain of our channel-surfing way of life, but Potawatomi Zoo definitely becomes more interesting the more slowly you make your way through it.

Let’s hope the zoo can restock the Australian exhibit quickly and restore this jewel of the collection. They’ve established a Remember the Wallabies Fund for those who wish to make contributions, and many children have, they say, been bringing in their savings to help out. Tomorrow the previously scheduled playful day of events celebrating Sammy, the zoo’s chimpanzee who likes to paint, has been amended to include a 3:00 commemorative gathering at the Australian exhibit. In case you’re wondering, Sammy is an abstract expressionist. And today, from 11:00 to 3:00, the zoo concession stand will be holding a fund raiser cookout in the parking lot. Of course after you get yourself a hot dog you’d be crazy not to stroll into the zoo and see if you can spot a squirrel monkey playing Tarzan in the weeping willow, or a tarantula meditating in its burrow. As the song says, it’s all happening at the zoo.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 9, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

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