Herds drawn to zoo’s open enclosures

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When first introduced to their open-air enclosure, the giraffes huddled together in a corner of the African Rift Valley at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

“They were wary and mistrusting for about three weeks,” said Sean Anglum, public relations manager for the mountain zoo.

Being prey, not predators, it took them time to adjust to “massive” amounts of space compared to their old surroundings and concrete enclosures. That was back in 2003. Now the giraffes know they are safe in the valley they share with Kudu antelope, Red River hogs, zebra and African birds.

This fall, after years of transitioning from small concrete cages to expansive, open-air enclosures, the zoo will break ground on its last large-scale conversion. By summer 2011, the zoo will have the largest elephant barn of any zoo in North America.

Reflecting a national trend, the zoo has made the transition to open-air enclosures because it’s better for the animals to be in an environment that simulates their wild habitat as closely as possible. It’s also easier to foster a human connection with, and understanding of, animals when they’re seen in a more natural environment.

A new exhibit has meant more visitors. The zoo, which drew more than 500,000 visitors in 2008-09, has seen a steady uptick in attendance since it began opening its open-air exhibits.

Primate World, which houses gorillas and orangutans, was the zoo’s first transition from concrete and steel cages to open-air areas in 1990. Next was the Asian Highlands exhibit, in 1996, which is home to Pallas cats, Amur leopards, Amur tigers and snow leopards.

More recently, the Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit opened in 2008. It includes animals that had flourished in the Rocky Mountains, but were endangered by the actions of humans, and later re-introduced into the wild by the efforts of humans, Anglum said.

Mexican grey wolves at the zoo, for instance, have an expansive enclosure with one-way glass, and limited interaction with their handlers, so the wolves can be re-introduced into the wild some day.

In contrast with the timid giraffes, the grizzly bears immediately “checked out every nook and cranny” of their new territory in the Rocky Mountain exhibit.

The open-air enclosure includes a pond stocked with fish that have learned to evade the grizzlies, dirt to dig in and trees to knock over. “The bears like to be a little destructive,” he said.

Prior to 2008, the mountain lions were kept in “very cramped” cement quarters with steel bars. Today they have a tall enclosure, which means the lions get the vertical volume of space they need, with trees, boulders and rock-shelves to climb or catch the sun.

But the zoo’s hard-won prize is Tahoma — a 3-year-old bull moose still trying to grow a set of adult antlers.

He wouldn’t be at the zoo at all if it weren’t for the Rocky exhibit.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums has strict guidelines for moose. Their habitat must include three distinct areas: woodlands, an open sunny-space area and a wetland area, with algae to eat.

Tahoma has all of it — but will probably be too sullen to appreciate it until he gets past puberty.

Rebecca Tonn can be reached at rebecca.tonn@csbj.com or 719-329-5229. Friend her on Facebook.