Columbian Park Zoo

I was skeptical.

A small zoo in a college town. What could it have?

Well, quite a lot. I was impressed by the staff that I encountered and by a special talk about snakes. They were quite knowledgeable, passionate, and clearly loved the animals that they cared for.

The zoo itself has been around for over 100 years (!). In the 2000s, the zoo closed for a few years to implement phase one of a master plan to improve the zoo.

Currently the zoo includes exhibit areas, a farmyard with petting area, an education building, and play areas. The animals are a bit of an eclectic bunch, which makes me wonder about the strategy behind which animals to house in the zoo.

I first encountered the New Guinea Singing Dogs. They were napping rather than singing. Singing Dogs were the first sign that this might not be a typical zoo.

Then to my surprise, I stumbled across a Galapagos Tortoise. OK. Definitely not your normal neighborhood zoo. I had never seen one up close and personal. I regarded it and it regarded me. A member of the zoo staff pointed out that she was 100 years old. She looked pretty good. (Later I passed by her again. She was literally sprawled out in the grass snoozing. I guess at 100 she earned the right to daytime naps.)

In contrast to the dogs and the tortoise, three North American river otters were tumbling in play, alternating their rough housing with running around the enclosure and swimming in the water. The exhibit had a tunnel where kids could crawl through the water and look at the otters swimming around. (For a brief moment, I pondered crawling through the tunnel myself to get a closer look. But my hesitation cost me my chance…the tunnel suddenly filled with kids.)

The enclosure of prairie dogs contained plastic bubbles where kids can crawl under the enclosure and pop up to get a closer look at any prairie dogs hanging out in the open. Only a few prairie dogs had ventured out the day I visited. The walls of the enclosure were low enough to allow for good photography of the animals. Mental note: Come back with camera.

Next were two bald eagles in an open enclosure. (Hmmm…their wings must be clipped.) The pair seemed always attentive and I pitied any mouse that might wander into their home. I noticed remnants of feet and legs of what I could only imagine was at some point a chicken. (Hopefully one of the barnyard roosters wasn’t foolish to venture over to this part of the zoo.)

As I thought how the shriek associated with eagles isn’t their real voice—movies and media use red-tailed hawks as voiceovers for eagles—one cried out. The high-pitched squeak is quite different than what you would expect. (See or for samples of eagles’ real voices.) I noted their feather-covered legs with admiration. Vastly different from other bird legs. Except maybe owl legs, I pondered. Perhaps that is why I like owls…

The emus weren’t very active, mainly sitting around but attentive. The signage revealed that emus are the second largest bird, which made me wonder what the largest bird is. Their huge footprints in the mud by the watering hole were testament to the large size of those scaly feet. If I remember correctly, emus can run fast, but judging by the size of the enclosure, they had little opportunity to stretch their legs. Instead, they gazed over at the wallabies in their own enclosure.

The wallaby exhibit was different. Visitors can access the enclosure with a member of the zoo staff in attendance. Parents struggled to keep their children on the path and away from grabbing these miniature kangaroo lookalikes. The low ropes along the path clearly weren’t keeping the children on the path. How were they keeping the wallabies off of the path, I thought? And then, as if on command, wallabies started jumping all over the place. They are small child size but even still, they had some mean looking front claws. I was hoping to see a joey poking his head out of one of them but alas, in that regard I was disappointed.

Another enclosure housed your not-run-of-the-mill birds. Two kookaburras hung out with a Galah cockatoo. Wait a minute. Kookaburras? Weren’t those the bird I recently saw in the movie The Hunt for the Wilderpeople? The bird that was rare to see? And here was a pair of them. Cool! I was blessed to hear that kookaburras call…and to see one haul around a shriveled up dead mouse in his beak. (Seriously, was the bird never going to actually eat it?).

Another odd but successful pairing was a turkey vulture in an enclosure with a barn owl. I’m not sure how they get along—at least they haven’t killed each other. The turkey vulture was out and about. The barn owl was high up in a wooden box attached to a corner of the enclosure. Probably wishing he could sleep. I love owls and wish that the zoo had more of them.

The zoo contains a small butterfly enclosure. I wasn’t seeing too many butterflies—it was a cool, overcast day. And then the zoo attendant in the butterfly exhibit explained that during rains (which we have had), butterflies hide under leaves. (Oh, that makes so much sense. Getting caught in a rain would probably kill them.) And then I was on a hunt, looking for butterflies hiding under leaves.

No American zoo is complete without a barnyard/petting zoo. I had high hopes of seeing and petting goats. My hopes were not thwarted but somewhat dimmed. (Signs instructed to only pet the body of the goats. So much for head scratches or hugs.) Unlike previous petting zoos, there were no brushes to use on the goats. In true goat fashion though, many were standing on rocks—the perfect pose for being brushed.

I had forgotten that feeding goats in a petting zoo can become a combative sport. As I attempted to get food from the dispenser, a number of goats descended on me, trying to get their mouths where the dispenser opening was. Somehow I managed to get food out of the dispenser and away from them. But then I promptly had goats trying to climb on me to get to the food I had. Other goats were more well fed—and well behaved—it seemed.

The barn itself contained a few other animals: a snoozing pig, a tiny pony, a llama (a sign warned about biting), and a mama goat with baby. Chickens freely roamed.

One other area of the zoo housed a string of large two-story enclosures. First were the porcupines. I saw them nowhere….and then looked up. The poor pair of porcupines was clearly trying to sleep—they are nocturnal animals. I had no idea that porcupines climb. They are huge animals. But there they were, perched precariously high above.

Next to them were the spider monkeys, little guys huddled in clusters. They didn’t look all that happy. Perhaps, I surmised, it had to do with the cooler clime and the fact that the gibbons just down the row from them would not shut up.

I have never encountered gibbons that were so vocal. These white-handed gibbons were quite active, swinging around on ropes and in some cases just hanging from the top of the cage, like a kid hanging from the monkey bars. Except we never just hang. They must have incredible upper body strength to suspend for extended periods of time as if it were nothing. A family of adults (humans) was seated on a bench, listening to the vocalizations of the gibbons. The vocal variations were quite entertaining.

The zoo presented a special educational show about snakes. I was impressed with the knowledge of the staff and how they interacted with the audience (mostly made up of small children and parents). We learned about snakes in Indiana (31 types, only 4 are venomous) and then were introduced to two different ones: a boa constrictor and a grey rat snake. The former was named Rocky Balboa. (No one but me laughed. The speaker assured the kids that they would understand later in life.). The latter was named Greyjoy, but no explanation of his name was given. (I pondered the unfortunate name of the snake—Greyjoy was not a particularly good character on Game of Thrones.) The audience was allowed to touch Greyjoy if they wanted.

The zoo is open only from April to October. Hmmmm. When the zoo closes, where the animals go? Clearly to someplace warmer. But where.

I also wonder…phase one of the master plan for the revised zoo was unveiled in 2007. Has more happened in the last ten years? What is the next phase?


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