You can read as many books as you like about animals in the wild, or watch dozens of documentaries on television, but nothing compares to seeing those very animals where they belong.

But with a safari trip out of the question for the vast majority of people, there is only one solution - the zoo.

When I was a child, the zoo was a fantastic place filled with wonder around every corner and excitement at every turn. So it would not come as a complete surprise, that when I was asked to go to the zoo with my 16-month old nephew Anderson, my sister Sara and my twin brother Daniel (you can read a post about what it is like growing up as an identical twin here), I was more than just a little excited.

I remember going to the zoo as a kid and being enthralled by the animals on display, listening to the keepers with awe, and just staring at the animals for hours, scarcely noting the passage of time until a teacher or parent yelled at me to hurry up.

Going to the zoo throughout my life nurtured my love and fascination of animals, which lead to my interest in biology in school and my career in the sciences, so it is not surprising that I love it. As silly as it was, I was hoping to pass on a bit of the wonder and love that I possess for the zoo onto my nephew by introducing him to animals he's only seen in books.

The Toronto Zoo is divided into five main areas over 700 acres: Eurasia, African Savannah, Americas, Canadian Domain and Indo-Malaya. We decided to explore the African Savannah area because it has a huge and diverse group of animals, as well as some of the most recognizable.

Setting off from the entrance and seeing a lone tiger pacing in his cage, stop and stare at us, we all knew we were going to have a fun day.

Animal magnetism

After the tiger, we walked by the pavilion that housed the orangutans, which I have been fascinated with for a long time. Monkeys and apes never held that much of an allure for me, except for those lanky rust-tinted primates.

There was something about their careful movements that endeared them to me, as was the feeling that when they saw you, unlike most other animals that seem to stare past or through you, orangutans seem to actually see you.

When I was a child, the entire family went to the zoo with some family friends. Then, while walking around, I apparently got so distracted staring at the orangutan habitat that I forgot to notice that everyone had left and moved on to another paddock. By the time I did realize that, I was completely alone, I did what any sensible child would do - I continued staring at the orangutans.

When everyone didn't come back after a reasonable amount of time to a young child, I decided to be pro-active and speak to a security guard about my particular situation and got my parents paged.

According to my father, when they finally found me, I was explaining the situation to the security guard, in a way and manner that only I could achieve. From what I can remember, only the initial realization that I was alone was scary, but once I decided to find a security guard, it disappeared. In fact, I felt perfectly safe at the zoo, and still do.

And right from the beginning, Anderson was as well.

He really enjoyed watching all the animals, whether big or small, and trying to say their names as we watched them in their habitats. Of course, being only 16-months old, he was bound to get a few wrong.

What's in a name?

For example, as we approached one of the first exhibits, I asked, “Anderson, what's that animal?” to which he responded by smiling and clapping.

Not the response I was hoping for.

So, I decided to try again with my sister's help.

“Anderson, do you see that animal there?” she said, as I pointed at the four-legged mammal a few feet away.

“Dog,” said my nephew after taking a moment to ponder the question.


After a quick glance at my sister, who was laughing, I shrugged and said; “Well, it is a mammal, so that's close enough for me!”

Throughout the rest of the zoo, Anderson continued to say names of animals that were close, but not exactly correct.

For example, he also said that a hyena, two zebras and a giraffe were dogs, while an olive baboon was classified as an “ooo-ooo.”

But the most impressive example of Anderson's animal knowledge was when my brother Daniel took a look at the animal on my shirt, and asked Anderson what it was. To everyone's surprise, Anderson called the image of a platypus, a “duck.”

I was incredibly impressed, as I know some people my age that would make that very same mistake.

From the Red river hog, we proceeded along to the path to the African Savannah area, and encountered one of the signature animals of any zoo - the Elephant.

The pachyderm problem

The story of Toronto Zoo and its three elephants, Thika, Toka and Iringa is not a happy one. Since 1984, seven elephants have died at the zoo, with four being within the past five years.

In a long and emotionally distraught meeting held in the spring, the board of the zoo decided that the remaining three elephants would be leaving the zoo for one of two places - another zoo or an animal sanctuary. Public pressure has been nagging away at the zoo for years to move the animals to a location that isn't as cold or as cramped as their accommodations at the Toronto Zoo.

But, ultimately, the board said their reasons were financial.

The Zoo has an almost $100-million repair backlog, while attendance and donations continue to shrink every year. Sadly, like almost every zoo, the Toronto Zoo just cannot raise the money to keep everything as up-to-date as it would like.

The board, in their decision, said that even though the elephants may be leaving the zoo physically, they did not rule out the potential for another type of elephant exhibit. They stated that there could be an interactive exhibit telling visitors about elephants, but with no real elephants there, the impact could be lacking.

It was important for all of us that Anderson would be able to see an elephant in the flesh, as the next time he goes to the zoo, pictures could be the only reminder they were even there.

An elephant may never forget, but when the pachyderms leave the Toronto Zoo, the public will.

Rhino rage

Nearing the end of our zoo adventure, we got to one of my favorite animals: the rhino, which Anderson was not that enthusiastic about until he saw their defining feature. After that, he did not want to leave!

There is something captivating and calming about the seemingly gentle giants who act like they wouldn't hurt a fly, until you see the monstrous horns atop their skulls. Then you realize that with their monstrous weight of over a ton, they could crush or impale you without so much as a running start. But despite their large size and horn, rhinos are mostly passive animals.

And yet, rhinos are one of the most killed animals in the wild by poachers for their horns, which is made of keratin, the same compound that makes up your hair and fingernails.

The demand for the horn is so great in the Far East and Asia that, according to a recent Globe and Mail article earlier this month, one kilogram of rhino horn is $97,000 per kilogram - twice the value of gold. This surge stems from the ever-increasing demand in traditional Chinese medicine for powdered rhino horn, which is purported to cure everything from headaches to cancer.

While modern medicine has found no medicinal qualities in rhino horns and international trade in it has been banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) since 1977, demand is still high.

According to the article, in the last three years, over 800 rhinos have been killed and the trend is increasing every year. In fact, some poachers are breaking into museums and auction houses in order to steal stuffed rhino heads and skeletons for the horns.

With only a fraction of their populations remaining, it depends on conservation measures from biologists and zoos across the world to help bring the rhinos back to their former numbers. Only then, will Anderson be able to enjoy watching them for decades to come.

A fishy farewell

Nearing the end of our Toronto Zoo tour, we decided to head off to see the newest exhibit and one of Anderson's favorites, the endangered African penguins.

Anderson pushed his face up against the plastic in the underwater viewing area, trying to get a closer view of the endangered animals, which are at a large risk of extinction from climate change and human encroachment on their habitat. Sadly, everywhere Anderson went, the penguins took flight underwater to another area of the tank, which made him rather cranky.

To calm the savage toddler, we ventured to the top of the enclosure where about half of the 12 penguins on display were grooming and waddling about. Every now and then, the penguins would make loud calls that sounded like an angry donkey (hence their nickname, the jackass penguin).

But, as much as Anderson wanted to stay and watch the penguins waddle and fly through the water, the day was coming to an end with just one last stop to make before we headed home.

Pushing through the crowd at the zoo was an aggravating experience, but knowing that every person that walked through the gates was contributing to conservation efforts and research was comforting.

Watching my sister Sara lead her son to a huge aquarium and pointing out all the different fish (or “ish” as Anderson calls them), made me wonder if zoos have much of an impact on the greater biodiversity issues facing our planet.

It is a fact that zoos educate the public and help bring countless animals to individuals that may not have a chance to ever see them in the flesh, but they also do conservation and research to help save/protect species. Is it enough?

In fact, is anything we are doing now enough to conserve our planet's flora and fauna for generations to come, or are we so out of control that we are like a runaway train, and just trying to contain the damage?

I hope, for Anderson's sake, it's the former.

All pictures taken by David Manly at the Toronto Zoo, except for the orangutan, taken at the San Diego Zoo.