Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald’s Favorite Summer Spot: The Denver Zoo

A walk in time through my favorite summer spot in the city, the Denver Zoo Conservation Alliance.

Elephants
Photo courtesy of Visit Denver.

For me, Denver summers are the most special season. A recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine touted the health benefits of sunshine, exercise, and clean air, concluding that “we are meant to be outside.” When I was growing up in Denver in the 1950s, kids already knew that.

Summers meant bike riding, swimming, fishing in the lake at Washington Park, and going home when the street lights came on. Back then, there was no internet and no cable television, and telephones and cameras were separate devices. There was no Water World, no Meow Wolf, no Colorado Rockies or Avalanche games, and the Butterfly Pavilion had yet to spread its wings. The Denver Broncos didn’t kick off its first season until September 1960, when the team took on the Boston Patriots in the inaugural game of the American Football League. The Broncos won 13–10.

Still, somehow, we managed. There was a lot of fun to be had. Musical popsicle and ice cream trucks showed up fairly often in our neighborhoods; we had the rides at Elitch Gardens and Lakeside amusement parks, and Fourth of July fireworks. Nevertheless, one institution, even then, was a favorite destination, the iconic Denver Zoo. And it is still there today.

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The Denver Zoo was established in 1896 when the then-mayor was gifted an orphaned black bear cub. The 80 acres that house the Denver Zoo today are a far cry from that original facility, Now, 3,500 animals representing 350 different species call the zoo home. For a number of years the Denver Zoo has been the number one attraction in the state of Colorado. Last year, there were over two million visitors.

Although it boasts a rich history, the Denver Zoo is not mired in the past. It is a vital, growing, changing institution, always with a vision for the future. Denver Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Humane, and the keepers are devoted to the animals they care for. In the mid-1990’s, the Tropical Discovery exhibit opened. On display are mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from the tropics, 70% of which had never been seen at the zoo. On November 6, 1994, the famous polar bear cubs, Klondike and Snow, were born at the Denver Zoo and became a popular attraction and the media darlings of the entire country.

Tigers
Photo courtesy of Visit Denver.

In 2004, Predator Ridge was completed. Here visitors can view African lions and spotted hyenas in an enclosure that can be rotated and provide environmental enrichment for the animals.

In 2012, Toyota Elephant Passage opened. This state-of-the-art habitat houses Asian elephants, one-horned rhinoceros, and Malayan tapirs. The exhibit rotates many different habitats in the same fashion as Predator Ridge to provide different environments for the animals.

In 2020, Stingray Cove opened to the public. Here, cownose rays, southern stingrays, bamboo sharks and guitarfish are housed in an 18,000-gallon open air aquarium. Guests are allowed to touch, feel, and feed the rays as they swim around the tank.

This year, the Denver Zoo is very excited to introduce guests and visitors to Down Under, a brand-new exhibit exploring the ecosystems of Australia and New Zealand. Over 80% of Australian wildlife is unique to Australia. Now here in Denver, there are wallabies, tree kangaroos and cassowaries on display.

Throughout each day, Denver Zoo provides various educational opportunities and demonstrations for visitors. This includes feeding demonstrations and talks centered on conservation. The Denver Zoo is committed to the conservation of all animals. Its Department of Conservation Biology coordinates protective efforts for bison, boreal toads, and pika in Colorado as well as provides funding for various projects worldwide.

There are 10 million other forms of life on our planet besides humans. When a species goes extinct the world becomes a less interesting place. The Department of Conservation Biology at the Denver Zoo has active research projects in Peru, Vietnam, and Laos, and is engaged in several local studies. The zoo sponsors the endangered Colorado mountain pika study, spearheaded the reintroduction of Colorado’s endangered boreal toads, and partners in projects to reintroduce the American bison.

As an external Research Associate for the Denver Zoo, I work on projects that complement the Field Conservation Department’s ongoing core field programs. My focus is on wildlife veterinary medicine in Mongolia, and I’ve visited the East Asian country 12 times to work with endangered species and assist with capture-and-tagging missions as well as studies on wildlife health. I’ve also been to the Arctic to study polar bears twice. These conservation efforts are what make me such an advocate for the Denver Zoo.

The Denver Zoo adds to the character of our city and is a treasure for the thousands of children that visit each year. It is a must-stop destination for out-of-town guests. You will find me there this summer, strolling the grounds. I’ll be the one with the ice cream.