Forget crocodiles and snakes, the real animal threat in Australia is wild pigs. At least if you’re camping.
At a campground in Western Australia over the weekend, a feral pig guzzled down 18 beers that had been left out improperly secured. And just like anyone 18 beers in at a rural dive bar, the pig got big-headed and decided to start a fight with a cow, resulting in the cow chasing the pig around a car.
“In the middle of the night these people camping opposite us heard a noise, so they got their torch out and shone it on the pig and there he was, scrunching away at their cans,” said a visitor.
The pig was later reported sleeping his hangover (and shame of trying to take down a cow?) off under a tree.
While feral pigs are considered an invasive pest in many parts of the country, it’s also a reminder to keep food and drink secured when camping. Just imagine if it had been a drunk kangaroo.
I do not like zoos. I have no ideological problem with them, but every time I bring my children to a zoo, I feel drained – financially, physically and mentally – by the time we’re ready to leave. When my wife and I had the first of our two children in 2007, I don’t think I’d been to a zoo in more than 20 years.
But since then, I’ve been coerced into visiting zoos in Chicago, Brookfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, Zurich, Toronto, Baraboo, Wisconsin and a host of other places. And this week, I somehow got roped into taking my children to not one but two zoos: the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.
These are reputed to be two of the best zoos in the world, but they’re also huge places that you can’t very well just duck into for a quick visit. Other than placating my sons, ages 3 and 5, my goal for the visits was to find out if these places were worthy of the hype and to determine if even a zoo-hater like me could be won over.
My first impression of the Safari Park was overwhelmingly positive. You walk into the place and there’s a beached old Land Rover parked on the side of a small hill, next to a rushing waterfall. Speakers pipe in cool, tribal African music and the lush, tropical surroundings make you feel like you’re in the Hollywood version of a jungle set.
I had a vague impression that we were going to have our butts carted all around the place in some sort of vehicle or cart, but that isn’t exactly how it works. With the regular general admission ticket ($44), you get a 25-minute ride on the Africa Tram Safari, but have to walk the rest of the place. But if you want to spend more, there is a dizzying array of more expensive safaris, ranging from the $84 cart safari to the $599 ultimate VIP safari. Only in America can you drop a few grand on a trip to the zoo, right?
We opted for the cheapest ticket and I thought the Africa tram ride was more than enough for our needs. It’s a narrated ride that is about as close to an African safari as you’ll get in the U.S. You can probably see many of the animals we saw – giraffes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, antelope, zebras and others – in a lot of zoos, but here you’re seeing them in a huge open space that looks like a much more natural habitat. (But if you want to get very close to the animals, you need to go on one of the more expensive safaris.)
And what’s more, our guide, Doug, even took it upon himself to give us some tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint. (I’ll be sure to slow down on the highways, Doug, thanks for the suggestion.)
My favorite animal was Vila, a 55-year-old gorilla that’s a great, great, great grandma who is believed to be one of the oldest “known-age” gorillas in the world. My sons dragged us all over the 1,800-acre park in search of all their favorite animals too, and, while it was a bit exhausting, I loved the fact that there are a host of unpaved trails that make you feel as though you’re on a hike out in the woods.
It’s not a typical zoo vibe at all and I liked that. But you will definitely need to watch your wallet at the Safari Park. There are opportunities to blow cash everywhere – you can even pay $6 to cut the Africa Tram line. If you’re on a budget, definitely bring your own food and drinks. A fountain soda goes for $5.19, a cup of soup is more than $7 and all of the other food and beverage options are similarly overpriced.
The San Diego Zoo, located in beautiful Balboa Park, in the city of San Diego, is more of a typical zoo experience, only better. The grounds are lush and expansive and the variety of interesting animals from all over the world is pretty astonishing. Everyone loves the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but there you can walk for miles and see only a handful of animals. At the San Diego Zoo, the variety of wildlife in a similar sized space is far more impressive but you don’t get the feeling that the animal enclosures are cramped either.
Like the Safari Park, there are a host of expensive tour options and expensive souvenirs and refreshments, but given the fact that it’s right in the city, as opposed to the Safari Park, which is in a much more quiet, somewhat remote area, there’s no reason why you can’t duck out to get a bite to eat or simply bring your own lunch.
The amazing thing about the San Diego Zoo is that it really is like a little trip around the world. We saw animals from all over the planet: komodo dragons from Indonesia, gorillas from Africa, pink flamingos from the Caribbean, an anaconda from South America, and crested porcupines from India to name just a handful. And I saw a whole host of animals I’d barely even heard of before: a mang mountain viper, a Bornea sun bear, a Manchurian brown bear, an Andean bear, a West African dwarf crocodile, an Andean Cock-of-the Rock birds, and assassin bugs to name just a few.
I also liked the descriptions and the attempts to humanize the animals. We sat and watched the six gorillas for some time and I though the descriptions of their personalities was spot on: Paul “The Player” was indeed “handsome, charismatic and playful,” as he laid on his back, spread eagle with his hands covering his eyes, Ndjia, “The Thinker” sat in Rodin’s “The Thinker” pose, and Frank “The Tank” was every bit the “strong, independent, playful” lad he was made out to be.
A few words of advice if you are going to be pushing children around this zoo at least part of the time. Go down Center Street and Park Way first toward the Pandas and Polar Bears because it’s a very long, steep hill. We did this part of the zoo last, when my kids were too tired to walk at all and I was exhausted pushing them in a stroller back up the hill to cap the day. And if your kids are as inquisitive as mine, don’t hand them the colorful map showing all the animals until you’re in the car ride going home.
My 5-year-old would see an image of an animal he liked -Porcupine! Zebra! Parrot! Bug house!- and then insist that we charge off to find that animal immediately, leaving me feeling a bit like Magellan looking for a spice route to the West Indies.
If you only have time to visit one zoo in the San Diego area, where you go depends on your preferences and where you’re staying. If you don’t want to stray outside the city limits, the zoo is the obvious choice. Those who want a more atypical experience and like the idea of seeing animals in a more natural habitat along hiking trails, trams or safaris should consider the Safari Park.
For sheer variety of animals, I’d go with the zoo – there are some 3,700 animals representing approximately 660 species in a 100-acre space, compared to about 2,600 animals representing about 300 species in an 1,800 acre space at the safari park. And the zoo has the advantage of free parking, though both of these places are worth visiting. Even if you hate zoos, like me.
It’s hard to imagine the Fourth of July without fireworks, but for drought- and fire-stricken regions like Colorado, that’s the way it’s going to be this year. If you happen to be living or traveling in a no-fireworks zone, don’t despair. There are still ways to celebrate our nation’s birth without setting it ablaze.
Since I’m in Colorado right now, I brainstormed with a group of rangers at Boulder’s Chautauqua Park (which is adjacent to the now 90%-contained Flagstaff Mountain blaze). Our ideas, below:
1. Organize a block party
2. Go to a laser show (or hold your own; those PowerPoint things are for more than just entertaining cats)
At least 23 of the 700 or so black and white rhinos in the country were poached this year, but authorities managed to arrest 37 poachers and horn dealers. Rhino horns are popular for folk medicine, especially in Asia where they fetch high prices. One tactic of the poachers is to poison water holes, which kills not just the rhinos but any animal that drinks there.
More than $4 million is being spent to protect the animals, the government says, including implanting radio transmitters into the horns of 100 rhinos this year.
Zimbabwe isn’t the only country facing this problem. The Huffington Post reports that South Africa is doing more to train park workers on how to investigate incidents of poaching. Several poachers were killed in shootouts with authorities earlier this year, but that didn’t stop 341 South African rhinos from being poached in the first 10 months of the year, more than in all of 2010.
Photo of rhino in Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe, courtesy Susan Adams.
Last Wednesday’s fatal bear attack on a 57-year-old man in Yellowstone National Park has made national headlines, and stirred up a lot of mixed opinions, despite the fact it’s the park’s first bear-related fatality since 1986. Fortunately, because the animal in question was a female grizzly defending her cubs, park rangers have decided not to take action.
Park ranger Kerry Gunther, who has studied Yellowstone’s bears for over 30 years, was quoted in a recent CNN article as saying there’s a difference between defensive and predatory attacks by bears. “If a bear shows signs of hunting and eating humans,” he says, “rangers will attempt to track down and euthanize the animal.” But rangers won’t usually kill a bear for defensive behavior.
Park visitors are understandably skittish; hiker Erin Prophet had a bear encounter while hiking in Yellowstone just two days after the attack. She opted to jump into a nearby lake, where she was towed to safety by two kayakers, rather than risk staying on the trail. Gunther later determined, based on video footage of the bear, that it was a juvenile black bear, and not much of a threat.
“Bears are really very tolerant of people,” he says. “I have had a few times where I was bluff charged but the bear always pulled up short. You don’t really know if you are a ‘runner’ or a ‘stander’ until that happens. People shouldn’t fear bears. They should respect them.”
So what should you do if you’re hiking or camping in bear country and you find yourself in close proximity to one? And how do you avoid an encounter in the first place? After the jump, tips on how to be “bear aware.”
It’s crucial to know if you’ll be in bear country on your trip, and what species live in the region. Grizzlies are much more aggressive and powerful than black bears, and your response to an encounter depends upon the species.
With black bears, you want to aggressively fight back if attacked; not so with grizzlies, as you’ll see below. Be able to identify the local species of bear in the event of a sighting. Most ski/mountain towns offer “Bear Aware” classes to teach locals and tourists how to co-exist peacefully with their ursine neighbors.
Pack away all food and store it out of reach of bears
Bears have been known to go to extreme measures when they get the munchies, and if they’re smelling the remains of your dinner or those candy bars stashed in your tent, you’ve got a problem. They also get into garbage, which is why you’ll always find bear-proof dumpsters and trash receptacles in areas populated by bears. Homeowners and holiday renters also need to be vigilant about keeping windows and doors closed when no one is around and at night, especially if there’s food out.
If you’re car camping, keep food in a cooler in your trunk after you’ve cleaned up. If you’re in the backcountry, hang all edibles in a “bear bag” from the branch of a tree or rig a line, as high up as possible. This is just as much for the bear’s safety as yours; human food is detrimental to their health, and once they learn they can get a free lunch by cruising a campground or neighborhood, it’s hard to get rid of them. For everyone’s safety, keep things clean and locked up tight.
Don’t be stupid.
“We can have hundreds of visitors alongside the road filming and viewing bears,” Gunther says. “When the bears want to cross the roads you’d think to a big, 200 pounds-plus bear people would show a little bit more respect (and) get back to their cars or let the bear cross the road. Sometimes people are letting the bear walk just feet from them.”
No matter how tame they may seem, wild animals are just that: wild. You’re in their territory, and by startling them, you risk a defensive (aka “aggressive”) response.
Gunther says respecting bears means traveling in large hiking groups, avoiding or leaving known bear areas, and always carrying bear spray (pepper spray), in case of an attack. Some people like to hike with a “bear bell” on their walking sticks or pack. Also, keep an eye out for bear scat on the trail. For someone supposedly nervous about the attack two days previous, Prophet showed a remarkable lack of good judgement. She was hiking alone, and wasn’t carrying bear spray.
I remember a hike with my family in Glacier National Park when I was about seven. A ranger stopped us mid-hike and told us a mother grizzly defending her cubs had treed two men nearby. The area was being evacuated, and my family and the other hikers on the trail were led back down the mountain. We were given empty soda cans filled with pebbles to shake, and told to talk loudly. Bears are more afraid of you, so if you know you’re in the vicinity of one but can’t see it, the best tactic is to make your presence known, and get the hell out of dodge.
Know what to do if you’re charged
If a grizzly does show signs of aggression, says Gunther, “that nanosecond before it hits you,” drop to the ground and play dead. By putting your hands behind your neck so your elbows protect the sides of your face, you’re more likely to survive an attack (bears usually go for the head and face). Being passive will usually put a stop to the aggressive behavior and send the bear on its way.
Other tactics: don’t run (that stimulates the animals predatory response). Stand your ground, and try to make yourself look at large as possible; raise your arms up into a triangle shape, and talk to the animal, so it recognizes you as a human. Don’t attempt to climb a tree; both black bears and grizzlies are adept at climbing, as well as swimming, and can run a lot faster than you can.
Don’t be paranoid.
Your odds of even seeing a bear are slim. It’s always good to be prepared, but don’t let bear paranoia change your travel plans or stop you from taking a hike or visiting spectacular national parks like Yellowstone. As Gunther points out, in the park’s 140-year history, only six people are known to have been killed in bear attacks.