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Animals at home on city zoo's trails
Exhibit highlighting state's native animals and terrain draws thousands on first day.

By John David Sutter Published: March 11, 2007
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 visiting
Since 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 cause
The 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. has disabled the comments for this article.

The Oklahoma City Zoo's new Oklahoma Trails exhibit in Oklahoma City is shown. BY JAMES PLUMLEE, THE OKLAHOMAN



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