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The International Writers Magazine: Omaha Zoo

The Henry Doorly Zoo
• Marianne de Nazareth
Two warm days in the middle of winter in Omaha? There was no way we were going to waste them. So off we went to the Henry Doorly Zoo, which according to its credits, it is the best zoo in the world.


We swung into Jimmy John's first, to carry sandwiches for lunch. We chose the  Italian Night Club sandwiches, packed with real Genoa salami, smoked ham and provolone cheese topped with lettuce and tomatoes and hid them away in our backpack.

Jungle Standing in line with the chill wind buffeting us, we heard the majestic and reverberating roar of a huge cat from somewhere within an enclosure to our left. Could it have been a Bengal Tiger we wondered? We were definitely going to the Big Cat enclosure later. I mean who would have thought to see a zoo in the mid-west of all places?

We headed straight for the Lied Jungle first,  which boasts a rainforest setting, featuring cascading waterfalls and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. We were enveloped in a blast of humidity and warmth which brought us willy nilly into the natural rainforest environment. Cited as  America’s largest indoor rainforest, the Lied Jungle has waterfalls crashing,  gibbons swinging and for me it felt like I was back home in the tropical environment of India!  Monkeys, tapirs, macaws and pygmy hippos are just a few of the animals you will see in the Lied Jungle. Seeing the vividly coloured Macaws up close and personal  was my second experience after Australia.

This exhibit showcases rainforests from South America, Asia and Africa.  The Lied Jungle is amazingly 80 feet tall, about the same as an eight-story building and a tree with its massive buttressed roots stood right in the middle.

Some of the inhabitants of Asia included the Malayan tapir, watchful gibbons, small-clawed otters flipping in the stream below. The African forests had amazing trees like the Tamarind tree, Cola nut tree, African oil palm,  the African tulip tree and a large Travelers palm.

The jungle of South America, is highlighted by a 50-foot  waterfall where everyone wanted their pics taken. Spider monkeys shared an island with tapirs and capuchin monkeys and it felt good to admire so many Philodendron and  epiphytic orchids which seemed to be flowering and growing happily in their new surroundings. Henry Doorly Zoo

The third area that we chose to visit was the Desert Dome, again apparently the world's largest indoor desert, located under a glazed geodesic dome which is a landmark icon of the zoo and for Omaha. Built at a cost of $31.5 million, the dome has plant and animal life from three deserts: The Namib desert of Africa, the Red Center of Australia and the Sonoran Desert of the southwest of the US . 

The awe inspiring dome is 230 feet in diameter spanning over one acre, and is an engineering marvel as  there are no supports to it. Standing 13 stories tall, the top of the dome is 137 feet above the columns. Geodesic means is a dome pattern of triangles that actually provide a strong structure. Interestingly, a gutter system, on the outside of the dome, is connected to two, 20,000 gallon underground storage tanks for the collection of rainwater. This rainwater harvested  is used for watering the plants inside the dome which is a great sustainable practice.

The replicated Namib Desert of southern Africa boasted of tall date palms and climbing among the pseudo cliffs were rock Hyraxes, klipspringers and the most darling meerkats like out of the movies. We literally ran past the Desert Caves which had 21 reptile species from Africa and Australia, including venomous snakes such as death adders, a cape cobra and the Inland taipan which is the world's second deadliest snake.  The Red Center of Australia is one of the world's most unique isolated deserts and we were lucky to see what it actually looks like here. Here, rock wallabies lived along with tall bottle brush trees and a tiny leaved Eucalyptus tree and some peccaries. A white Kookaburra sat unmoving, its thick beak pointed  away from our curious gaze.

The Sonoran Desert, which is found in the southwest United States and northwest Mexico,  is the world's second most  biologically diverse desert. This area had ocelots watching us as we looked at them, and a bunch of peccaries, who  did not care and wallowed in the desert dirt. We walked past bobcats, and then entered the  hummingbird canyon where we encountered a waterfall in the parched desert. We particularly loved the Road runner exhibit made famous again by the cartoon character Road Runner and Cayote. Among the flat, prickly pear cactus and the tall endangered Saguaro cactus forest live tame quail, lizards and the occasional rabbit.

Penquins After which we headed to the Aquarium, where the best section we enjoyed, was the Walk on the bottom of the ocean. Here one can literally come nose to nose, with sea turtles as sharks circle above you in the 70 foot shark tunnel.  One can discover polar regions, temperate oceans, coral reefs and the Amazon exploring this massive aquarium. From Antarctic penguins to colorful warm water fish, you get to see the magical world of underwater life. 
Walking through the Aquarium offers  a 40 foot racetrack tank with schooling fish greets visitors as they walk through the entrance. The tank features a built-in fiber glass divider that allows the fish to disappear and then reappear moments later. This tank is custom built and an amazing feat of engineering. The seahorse enclosures had me gaping at the little creatures and was especially tickled with the HD Zoo

The exhibit that draws large crowds is the Penguin gallery. Here, visitors can see tufted puffins and common murres in an above-and below-water exhibit which also encompasses a 20 foot high cliff nesting site. Antarctic penguins can be seen through a 60 foot long, 25 foot high window extending both above and below  water. The exhibit includes Antarctic rock, water and man-made snow, all kept at a temperature between 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The exhibit uses four snow makers producing 20 tons of man-made snow per day. Over 85 penguins, ranging from king penguins which are pretty tall, to gentoo penguins, a macaroni penguin and adorable little rock-hopper penguins, again  made famous by an animated cartoon character, stood around in the enclosure.

One highlight of the Aquarium has always been the underwater stroll on the ocean floor
through the Shark Reef. This system contains over 900,000 gallons of circulating salt water. Visitors wind their way through an oval-shaped, 70 foot long acrylic pathway where they can observe sand tiger sharks, zebra sharks and sting rays swimming past them on two sides and overhead.
Another great enclosure was the gorilla exhibit. In Africa these awesome Silverback gorillas are killed for Bush meat. Happily Omaha is a major player in gorilla conservation according to a notice put up and the current research partners include zoos in North America, Europe, South Africa and Australia.
Infact Rosie a female silverback was born in 1974 and was used for invitro fertilization, since this is an endangered species. While I was glad that we stood behind the bullet proof  glass separator one of the huge males rushed up and banged the glass aggressively with his chest. Frightening as there were little kids just beyond standing and watching, quite unfazed.

HD Lions The big Cat enclosure had Siberian Tigers and Malaysian Tigers. Strangely the Royal Bengal Tiger enclosure was empty.  The African Lions drew the most attention with the female nudging the male to his feet. He grumpily got up and then as if on cue roared menacingly which reverberated through our very beings. Then when he was done he grumpily flopped down all over again! All the cats looked like their coats were well tended to and looked very well fed.

I mean it's been two days since we visited and yet the beauty of the zoo and its well kept animals frequently pop up in my mind. Sad that the butterfly enclosure was closed to visitors. That was one section I would have loved to have visited.

© Marianne de Nazareth March 2014

Austin - Texas
Marianne de Nazareth

The carousel was a razzle dazzle set of Gibson Guitars painted in wonderful hippie colours as a welcome to us into Austin, Texas.

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