By MARY L. PEACHIN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
A visitor feeds a treat to a giraffe at Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Ariz. Granola-type soy biscuits are among the giraffes favorite treats.
TUCSON, Ariz. – The tigers Raja and Baheem are romping playfully while waiting to be released from their night house.
Occasionally, Raja will chuff, a reassuring sound of content, similar to the purr of a kitten. Baheem is guarded and slightly more territorial.
Its 7:30 a.m., and Tucsons Reid Park Zoo hasn yet opened to the public, but the reservations-only Breakfast at a Beastly Hour is under way. After fortification with coffee, bagels and fruit, we follow educational directors Jed Dodds and Jennifer Stoddard on a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo.
Strolling into the Indo-Chinese tigers cooled and locked night house, we learn about the tigers and their training. All of the zoos animals have night houses. After morning feeding, they e let into public exhibits.
Since 5:30 a.m., zookeeper Rebecca Lohse has been prepping food and checking the diet book in the kitchen. Each animal has its own diet with weight specifications and portion size. The monkey plate includes fruit and lettuce. Omnivores, including polar bears, get both fruit and meat. Herbivores such as the tortoises eat mixed lettuce, kale and fruit. Many carnivores such as lions and tigers get horsemeat.
The health center quarantines all animals before releasing them into the zoo population. Serving a 30-day quarantine are a two-toed sloth and several keel bill toucans.
Zebula is a 5,500-pound white rhino. His horn is made of nose hair. His eyesight may be poor, but his hearing is good. In the rhino enclosure, a peacock displays its tail feathers. Speekes gazelles graze in the distance as freeloading night herons sit on tree limbs.
Ms. Stoddard guides us to the polar bear exhibit. The day is warm, not quite 100 degrees. We wonder about the impact of Arizonas heat on the bears, but Boris and Kobe do well.
Polar bears are genetically designed for extremes, with black skin and hollow hair shafts. Their hair acts as a natural evaporative cooler.
Our final stop is a new stand for feeding reticulated giraffes. Yebo (Swahili for yes), Denver and Texas are each 13 to 15 feet tall. Their long, prehensile tongues reach eagerly for granola-type soy biscuits.
Its midmorning, not such a beastly hour anymore. Parents and kids are filing into the zoo. Our breakfast has been an education, a wonderfully filling experience.
Contact: 520-881-4753; www.tucsonzoo.org.
Mary L. Peachin is a freelance writer in Arizona.