It's been proven that certain species of primates are more intelligent than others and despite what you read here and encounter though daily life in this city, Jacksonville has some pretty bright monkeys. It just unfortunate that the key leaders and decision makers of the city are not among the best and brightest of monkeys. A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I would like to join a friend and her family for a day at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Since it had been well over 10 years since my last visit to the zoo I thought enough time had past. It was time to forgive and forget and return for another visit to see how things had changed at the Jacksonville Zoo and if the monkeys in charge had gotten any smarter.
While I had been to the zoo many times as a child growing up here in Jacksonville. I only have a few memories that I have retained of the many visits made throughout my childhood. Two of the most vivid are from my 9th birthday party which was held at the zoo. Of all that occured that day, I only remember two things about that birthday. One is of my party guests and I loading up and riding the train pictured below.
My other memory is of a little petting zoo with goats, rabbits and chickens all which seemed to have had its fill of being pushed and prodded by various kids. I remember standing to the side of that petting zoo feeling so bad for the animals as kid after kid chased them around for just that one quick touch. As a kid I found zoos in general to be sad and depressing places. But my parents seemed to enjoy taking me, so I never complained or told them how I felt. I feel I should explain that I grew up in a very rural part of Jacksonville with the sighting of deer, bear, bobcat, fox along with every type of reptile and raptor native to florida pine flatwoods and wetlands a daily occurrence. Having spent countless hours of my youth watching animals move within their native landscape, seeing more animals in little pits with motes full of dirty water didn't hold a lot of appeal for this kid. It wasn't until years later as an adult when I had started traveling on my own I learned how lucky I was to have grownup in an environment that allowed me the exposure I had to "the real Florida." It was through those travels that I learned the important role that zoos play. With uncontrolled sprawl and the destruction of natural habitat being the new national pastime, the only interaction most adults and children have today with animals are as domesticated pets. And that is where the importance of the modern zoo comes in.
My last visit to the Jacksonville Zoo was 12 years ago and I thought it would be fun to take my then 8 year old (now 20) nephew for the day. Well, it didn't turn out to be such a fun place for either child or adult. I left the zoo exhausted, a nervous wreak and with a bad taste in my mouth both figuratively and literally. The Jacksonville Zoo had gone through a extensive redesign since my last visit as a child. Gone were those sad little pits I hated as a child. The new zoo had opened things up and the non-predatory animals were now mixed in with other species in a much more natural environment. The redesigned zoo lends itself to a much happier and healthier environment for the animals and a better experience for the zoos guests while also allowing for the preservation of endangered species through captive breeding programs. But the thing both my nephew and I both found frustrating with the new zoo were the many gas powered golf carts zooming all over the narrow paths that weaved through the zoo. I'm sure I resembled a deranged meerkat on constant vigil for the sighting of or sound of those damned golf carts approaching around every corner so that I could react in time to get my nephew and myself off the path as it raced blindly past spewing a cloud of half burnt petrol and oil. The carts created such a ruckus that they even caused the animals safely tucked behind barriers to seek cover the from the noise and fumes.
Enter the smart monkey's. On my most recent visit, just as I had done for my 9th birthday I once again loaded up on a train to tour around the zoo's perimeter. Only it was no longer the tiny scale model of my youth. It is now much larger and a way more pleasurable and comfortable way for child and adult alike to enjoy what the zoo has to offer. It was on the train ride while my friends kids happily pointed out the animals and relayed to me all the information they knew about them including what they had named them that I started to notice a very pleasing trend. That was of zoo employees going about daily duties on bicycles. That delightful trend continued throughout the day as we continued our tour of the zoo on foot after leaving the train. It was such a pleasing experience to share the same paths with friendly smiling zoo workers on bicycles and trikes that my nephew and I once had to duck and cover on.
What had happened since my last visit? It's pretty simple, the city owned zoo had gone out and hired some pretty smart monkeys.
Pictured above is Tony Vecchio, Executive Director of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Tony is a Portland Oregon transplant (Its becoming clearer now, isn't it). Coming from a Portland background Tony is well versed in the value of bicycles as transportation and utility. So it made perfect sense when at his very first Green Team meeting his first question was, "do we really need all these carts?" Thus was the start of the greening of the zoos working fleet.
Together with Tony Vecchio, Director of Horticulture and Facilities and former Boston messenger, Bob Chabot (Pictured above) started getting rid of the obnoxious gas powered carts in favor bicycles and trikes. With a very limited budget Bob started with a few bikes purchased at a box store which were quickly replaced with better made bikes from a local bike shop. Bob learned real quick that discount bikes are not designed for daily use. At least not the daily use zoo employees put them through. Since that rough start and learned lesson, Bob has been able to build a fleet of 20 bikes and 15 trikes that carry the daily duties of everything from administration, maintenance and animal care and feeding needs. While you will still see golf carts in use around the zoo, they are no longer the gas powered monsters that once haunted my dreams and are now much more environment friendly electric carts.
Continued building of the bike fleet is an important focus for the zoo and they are always looking for ways acquire more bikes, trikes and trailers on a very limited budget.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is a shining example of how to do things right and we should be very proud of and support in it every way possible. It has something all of us monkeys can enjoy and I promise it will not be another 12 years before this monkeys next visit.
Most arrive to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens by automobile. It is after all, the Jacksonville way. There are others however that will chose the more scenic, and practicable bicycle, bus or a combination of the two. The day I was at the zoo I did notice one glaring error on the part of the zoo. No bike racks. I counted 9 bikes locked to whatever was secure enough to lock to.
I was promised by the administrators that the lack of bike racks would be rectified as soon as fund allowed and I volunteered to help with selection of rack type and placement.
Regardless of the lack racks the zoo is an easy 5 mile ride from downtown.
You can also break up you ride to the zoo and take the bus partway. Try using the JTA Trip Planner. All buses are equipped with racks that carry two bikes.
370 Zoo Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Help the Zoo get a much needed Bike Rack. The zoo is owned by the city and like every other entity that relies on city funding, money is tight. This is where you can help. A new 9 bicycle masher style bike rack cost right at $300 with shipping. Use the donation button above (under the header) and lets get the zoo a bike rack.