Mad about More than Monkeys: Education, Conservation & a Touch of Anthropomorphism at Southwick’s

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Tiny Tamarin Monkeys, just smaller than city-dwelling squirrels during “lean times”, were running amok! They skittered about their enclosure uncontrollably, haphazardly swinging and climbing, but so did the groups of school children visiting Southwick’s Zoo on spring break last week. The monkeys were colorful and loud, and just as full of energy as the kids on my side of the metal enclosures.

As advertised by the Boston locals who sent me there, Southwick’s is a surprisingly clean-smelling, freshly mulched zoo, one part zoological education center, and one part family-run entertainment venue. When it comes to many zoos, with lingering negative associations with the traveling circus and cramped, concrete living quarters, staff and administrators walk a fine line, between increasing respect for the animal kingdom, and raising questions about animal welfare.

Southwick’s handles this balancing act well!

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I had just finished the best zoo meal I’d ever eaten, at the newly opened Galliford’s Restaurant & Tavern  – creamy tomato soup, and gourmet grilled cheese that I’d built myself, with tomato, basil and caramelized onions, buried in crumbled blue cheese, melting into a generous portion of Swiss cheese. I could only eat half of my meal, but the leftovers weren’t going make it until morning, back at my hotel room!

The zoo opens for the season in April, welcoming visitors through November, with the Purple Peacock Gift Shop remaining open daily through December holiday shopping season. To attract visitors, the zoo boasts special days for Mother’s Day, military families, AAA members and teachers.

“Our mission is to provide an extensive zoological collection and education facility for our visitors. We strive to promote an exciting environment for a positive family experience. We hope you enjoy your experience at Southwick’s and make it a regular family tradition.” (Zoo Brochure)

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In June, while the zoo is at peak attendance, it is “Mad about Monkeys” day, because this zoo is, well, MAD about monkeys!! There are lots (and lots) of monkeys at this zoo, scattered in exhibits throughout the property, creatures of all sizes and demeanors! There are monkey-sized monkeys, straight off of the “M is for Monkey” page of a preschool Animal Alphabet Book. There are larger, Lion King-style monkeys, with their signature blue and red faces, and you might think you hear “Hakuna Matata” quietly playing overhead. (Yep, those are the Mandrills!)

I watched mischievous little critters, not much bigger than a hamster, discovering a small gap in the 2x4s that defined their enclosure, reaching tiny hands into the opening. When I bent down low, to peer into the sliver of an opening, I saw a small, bright set of eyes peeking back at me. I tried to snap a photo, but he was gone in a flash.

I witnessed a colorful monkey, about the size of a housecat, posturing and bearing its teeth at me, puffing up to the size of the Moroccan wild monkeys I’d fed grapes to, on my visit across the world. Well, he may have just been yawning, but those teeth are an impressive sight. The chimps moved around their space like a small gang, with one eye on the human visitors, in what seemed like a mixture of suspicion and menace, except for the “blankie” that the smallest was dragging behind him.

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The facility offers numerous, ongoing educational opportunities. Exhibits are clearly marked, and adorned with a variety of warnings. My favorites read “Please don’t feed fingers to the animals” and “The baby lemurs can get out of the enclosure. Please stay back and DO NOT touch them. Their mom will call them back in!”

There was a striking Bengal tiger putting on airs, and a brilliant white tiger lounging nearby, a proud male lion, posing for the camera on his large rock, and his female counterpart busy taking a nap. It actually wasn’t easy to photograph these animals, due to the protective metal fences in place near their favorite resting places. The other end of the enclosure was open, and free of obstacles, but just too far away from the animals for me to get a clean shot. The safety of visitors and the comfort of the animals take top priority, rather than the interests of photographers. I’ll have to bring a longer lens next time!

EARTH Ltd is a non-profit education center, located within the Southwick’s Zoo.  “Our mission: to provide environmental and conservation education with an emphasis on animal ecology, endangered species and threatened habitats.” (Zoo Brochure) EARTH =Environmental Awareness of Resources and Threatened Habitats. Conservation is at the heart of the zoo, from the restaurant to the exhibits, the programs and the treatment of the animals. Involved in numerous breeding programs, Southwick’s is well known and respected.

However, the zoo is also trying hard to be an entertainment venue, with their petting zoo, camel rides and an animal-themed tilt-a-whirl. “More than a Zoo; It’s an Adventure!” I think there was a hippo wearing a hat, but I forgot to snap a photo. A sky ride takes visitors on a path up high, to see the zoo from a bird’s eye perspective, or they can hop a train for a ground-level tour. If kids tire of looking at the animals, they are encouraged to mine for rocks in Elk Horn Mine.

“Southwick’s Zoo is Naturally Entertaining

Prepare to be amazed viewing giraffes, lions, tigers, white rhinos, and chimpanzees in our beautiful 200 acres of naturalistic habitats. Southwick’s Zoo is home to 850 exotic animals from around the world and our interactive exhibits are fun for all ages. Stroll leisurely through our 35 acre deer forest, where the deer roam free or ride the Woodlands Express train ride through the North American Elk habitat and wetlands. View the African Plains and other animal exhibits from new heights on our Skyfari Skyride.

Learn about your favorite wild animals, such as a kangaroo, armadillo or chameleon at the EARTH Discovery Center. Get up close and personal with farm animals, featuring chickens, goats and alpacas at our Petting Zoo. Parakeet Landing will offer you the chance to see and hear exotic birds. Don’t miss out on animal presentations, our kid’s play park, pony and camel rides, kiddie rides and so much more!” (Zoo Website)

On the way out of the zoo, I’m (predictably) drawn to the sparkling jewelry, primitive masks, plush toys, and colorful books & puzzles in the gift shop. Whether I’m at a big city zoo, small town art gallery, or a Smithsonian museum, a stop at the gift shop is a must! The minimalist in me is pushed aside by the former zoo and museum gift shop employee, and I don’t mind throwing the place a few more of my consumer dollars.

“Privately owned by the Brewer (Southwick) family, the Zoo does not receive federal, state or local funding of any kind; it sepends solely on the admission proceeds from Zoo visitors and patrons.” (Zoo Brochure)

Riding high on the sugar rush of ice cream and soda, the kids have trouble keeping their hands to themselves. There are fun, playful, plastic souvenirs that aren’t likely to survive the car ride home. . . “Three souvenirs each is enough . . . don’t you think?” asks one grandfather, who is being dragged around the store by his three young granddaughters. “You do have three!” he insists, “Even I can count that high!”

I overhear one parent scolding her kids to put down the “cheap stuff” and go find a book. Another cautions his brood to keep hands at their sides, as they maneuver around the glass cases and elaborate displays of fine art and jewelry. “This is the expensive section; don’t break anything!”

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Flimsy, plastic animal masks, which will be held tight to grinning, sticky faces by a small string of elastic, catch my attention. They remind me of the year I bought the same masks, for about $2 each, from the zoo gift shop I was working at, over winter break from college; it must have been around 1994. They were a big hit with zoo patrons, and stole the show at our family Christmas gathering, when I gifted them to my cousin’s kids. The more expensive presents, purchased straight from their Christmas wish lists, were pushed to the side, as a polar bear chased a giraffe across the living room.

The morning after my visit, local staff I was working with mentioned that my native Columbus Zoo’s 3 polar bear cubs, born within weeks to Mama Bears that are twin sisters, had made the morning news, in Boston. Why would “zoo news” be so. . . newsworthy? Columbus’s very successful breeding program is top notch, given the generally low reproductive rate of the species, and to have three cubs running around is. . . just adorable. I can’t wait to visit them!

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Southwick’s Zoo: http://southwickszoo.com/

Mandrill (Monkey Worlds): http://www.monkeyworlds.com/mandrill/

Purple Peacock Gift Shop: http://southwickszoo.com/the-purple-peacock-gift-shop/

Galliford’s Restaurant & Tavern: http://southwickszoo.com/gallifords/

Mendon, Massachusetts: http://www.mendonma.gov/

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