Blake Rhodes, 9, sipped from a soda cup with an opening as big as his face as he pondered the bobcat sleeping in front of him at a new Oklahoma City Zoo exhibit. "That's something that surprises me,” he said of the fact that there are bobcats in Oklahoma, "because I've never seen one before. ... Pretty much that's why.” Rhodes and about 12,000 other animal lovers browsed the zoo's new Oklahoma Trails exhibit, which consists almost entirely of animals that either live in Oklahoma now or were once native to the state but were driven out by urban expansion and hunting. The exhibit opened Saturday.
Native OklahomaThe bobcat in front of Rhodes lounged in the shade of a tiny pinion oak tree that was planted as part of the exhibit. The tree and the bobcat are native to western Oklahoma, which is where the zoo's Oklahoma Trails thematically begin. The project features 836 animals of 140 species and takes viewers on a compressed walk across the state — starting in the arid Panhandle and ending in the mushy swamps of southeast Oklahoma. It's a whirlwind tour of a state that is more biodiverse than almost any other in the nation.
Diverse climateSandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the hills of Arkansas, Oklahoma boasts 11 regions with distinct plants and soil, according to the zoo. The Oklahoma Trails strut proudly through each one, showcasing some animals you might see in your backyard, and some — like the bobcat, roadrunner or alligator — that you might not know lived here at all. The exhibit cost $10.3 million and was much delayed. Tara Henson, spokeswoman for the zoo, said construction took longer than expected because of the intricacies of building a massive exhibit — perhaps the zoo's largest undertaking — that attempted to preserve as many of the trees and plants at the zoo as possible. One oak tree that is 100 years old was saved during the construction, she said. Oklahoma Trails wind along the banks of a small valley at the zoo. A wooden boardwalk carries zoo-goers above a ravine and creek at the exhibit's center, and puts people next to the wire and netted cages where the animals live.
Up close and personalHenson said the up-close nature of the exhibit is one of its hallmarks. Inside an aviary, pheasants and quail scuttle along the ground right next to your feet. Some birds are bound in separate cages because they might eat their new zoo-mates. The roadrunner, for instance, has its own area with a wood fence. It bounced happily on and off of its planks as Nick Hentges approached. "We've got roadrunners on our street,” said Hentges, who is from Edmond. Some animals of the Oklahoma Trails are familiar. Others are rare, either because they are endangered or threatened, or because they live in a particular corner of the state. Alligators, for example, are found in the swamps of southeast Oklahoma. That's the furthest northwest they live in America.
Bird viewVisitors have the rare chance to see a bald eagle up close and personal. The eagle, named Gussie, walks uncaged on a ruddy hill below the boardwalk in the eastern Oklahoma part of the exhibit. Brian Aucone, director of animal management at the zoo, said Gussie, like all bald eagles in captivity, was wounded and can't fly, so she doesn't need a cage. It's not know what kind of accident she was in, but she was found with a hurt wing that later was partially amputated. Other animals wouldn't be found so near each other in the wild. River otters have a water play park that butts up to the black bear cage. Just a wall and a window separates the two. Aucone said the bears and otters will sometimes have a face-off at the window — then the otters go back to playing.
Just visitingSince the setting for the open-air exhibit is, in essence, a piece of its Oklahoma theme, some wild critters come to play with their zoo-bound cousins. In the aviary, zoo employees said wild turkey vultures have been flying at the netted ceiling, trying to interact with the turkey vultures on display. "We thought maybe we had a turkey vulture out one day, and it was just someone visiting,” Aucone said. Aside from the natural features of the exhibit, the zoo has placed replica turn-of-the-century buildings and artifacts around the trail. Some double as holding buildings for animals that need to go inside. One looks like a barn, and to the surprise of wide-eyed Kate Perryman, it isn't home to sheep and cows. Perryman stood inches from a glass bat cage inside the barn, the blue glow of black lights reflecting off of her eyeglasses in the otherwise pitch-black room. The barn is home to Oklahoma's nocturnal animals — bats, opossums, a skunk, flying squirrels. In the daytime, when visitors are around, only black lights are turned on as about 300 bats flutter in a frenzied mess. At night, zookeepers turn bright white lights on, so the animals will think it's daytime and go to sleep on human time.
Creating a causeThe real reason the exhibit was built, Aucone said, was to create a larger home for the zoo's two grizzly bears. The 4-year-old brown-colored bears, named Will and Wiley after Will Rogers and Wiley Post, are a crowd favorite. A hunter rescued the two bears from Alaska after he shot their mother, not knowing that she had cubs, Aucone said. Holden Stephens, 7, sat cross-legged, clutching the metal fence that kept the playful bears away from him. He said he wished the bears would climb a tree — but what they were up to was fine by him. One walked up to the moat at the front of the exhibit, stuck his nose in the air and twitched it. "See look,” he said. "And I like him smelling.” Aucone said the bears were swimming in the moat earlier in the day. They also spend a lot of their time digging in the red dirt of their hill-side home. Dead trees are strapped to the ground for them to climb on. If they weren't fastened down, Aucone said, the bears would pick the hefty trees up and toss them into the water. Overall, Aucone said he hopes people learn to appreciate the diversity of their state's wildlife from the Oklahoma Trails exhibit. "It's a great chance for people to see what Oklahoma has. ... I think that people are going to be amazed when they walk through here,” he said.
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The Oklahoma City Zoo's new Oklahoma Trails exhibit in Oklahoma City is shown. BY JAMES PLUMLEE, THE OKLAHOMAN Podcast