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Out of Africa: Sleeping over at the Toronto Zoo

“Please leave all your worries behind,” directed tour guide Julie as the zoomobile started up to carry about 20 of us, kids and adults, to our overnight destination. And just like Kumba and Simba in The Lion King, we were traveling to “exciting, exotic Africa.” Past the pink flamingos, and the pair of jaguars padding around, past the giraffes, new proud parents with 23 lb. hearts, past the ostriches, the second fastest animals in the world, we bumped along until we stopped at our overnight sleeping spot—Serengeti Bush Camp. The wooded clearing, part of the Toronto Zoo’s new African Savanna exhibit, was fitted with log benches around a fire pit, a circle of tents, and thankfully, a washroom with flush toilets nearby. A fence ofFor the next 16 hours, this was going to be our base as we toured behind the scenes, camped near the rhinos and hyenas, zebras and lions and had our own “Out of Africa” experience on the edge of the Toronto Zoo.

Each of the six families was assigned to their own canvas tent—leftover army digs with four folding cots and a wooden floor. Each dwelling was named after an African animal, ours NGIRI, the “wild boar.” Plain but comfortable, the tents had almost enough room to stand up in and screened windows in front and back to let in the breeze. After unpacking our things and introducing ourselves, we sat on the logs around the campfire waiting expectantly for our bush camp night to begin.

The zoo’s new African Savanna exhibit, which cost $18 million to build and is Canada’s only African reconstruction, succeeds in reproducing the landscape and feeling of that continent’s “big game” country. Reconstructed kopje rocks and termite mounds as well as signs in English and Swahili heighten the realism. Lizards perch on high rocks; an anti-poaching truck sits parked at the ready. The garden in Kesho Park is planted and harvested by Toronto’s African community and the field station looks as if it had been flown in direct from a Kenyan park. But the best thing about Serengeti Bush Camp overnights is that safari families do behind-the-scenes tours. Between 5 p.m. that night and 9 a.m. the next morning, we would get to meet the keepers to see how an 8000 pound creature gets her “pedicure”, take a night hike and shine a flashlight into the hyena pen to see eyes reflecting in the dark, eat deep-fried cassava root and samosas with tamarind sauce, pat the fur of a cheetah, listen to African music, watch the river hippos disappear underwater and examine specimens in the field station. Before bed, we would roast marshmallows by a fire lit to keep the “wild animals” at bay, and, during a very early morning hike (6:30 a.m.) with a Canadian twist, watch the wolves eat their breakfast. Especially fun for the kids was getting up close to the animals. They positively howled when an elephant we were watching let loose with a torrent of pee and giggled when the warthog, another Lion King character, was called “the African lawn mower.” As for wild animals escaping during the night? The only thing we had to watch out for were the local racoons who sometimes made forays for toothpaste or snacks during the night. Everyone stored their scented products in buckets in the washroom. The highlight for our group was coming nose to nose the next morning with new baby lion cub Simba, the long-awaited offspring of Nokanda and Rowdy, although the glass of his pen was between the noses. As one kid exclaimed, “I just love a happy ending.”

When the Toronto Zoo first opened in 1974, it was considered a radical departure—no creatures pacing in small cages, animals grouped according to their native continents, an animal nutritionist on staff, and some 710 acres of space that could take a whole day to walk around. People used to “doing the zoo” in an hour complained. But since then, this animal facility has set a standard for zoo exhibits around the world, promoting conservation, encouraging natural behaviors and undertaking research to produce babies of endangered species—lots of babies. Some 73 wood bison have been bred and reintroduced to northern Manitoba, Northwest Territories and the Yukon, over 30 black-footed ferrets have been released, over 15,000 Puerto Rican Crested Toads have been hatched and returned to the wild, the cheetahs have produced nine babies in 10 years, one of the most successful breeding programs in the world. In 1999, the zoo celebrated its 25th birthday by welcoming its 30 millionth visitor (Tom Cruise, Wayne Gretzky and Jane Goodall among them) and creating cakes for hundreds of animals. What kind of cake for a gorilla? A concoction of gelatin, fruit, vegetables and whipped cream.

This Zoo, the world’s fourth largest, is arranged in six biogeographical regions so kids can travel to Africa, Australasia, Eurasia, the Americas, IndoMalaya and Canada—but probably not all in one day. With some 5,000 animals and 499 species, you can’t see possibly see every creature. Check the “Today’s Zoo News” whiteboard outside the ticket booth to learn when feedings and “Meet the Keeper” events take place. Also consult your zoo program event guide given out at the front gate. Every half hour, there are Meet the Keeper events or feedings taking place. Then pick a set of colored animal footprints leading from the Main Entrance ranging from the Grizzly Bear Trail (1 hour) to the Round the World Tour ( 3 hours). Families with small children may want to detour to the Zoo’s Children’s Area near the main gate where they can ride a pony, pet a sheep or play at the Children’s Web Playground. Zoomobiles constantly cruise the grounds but if you want to see a lot of animals, some walking is required.

The highlights at the zoo are the Edge of Night exhibit, which enables visitors to see nocturnal animals in the dark, the Polar Bear feedings, and of course, the busy apes. Did you know that Charles the Lowland Gorilla held a gallery showing of his work and raised $34,000 for the zoo in 1996? And Puppe the orangutan is getting the “hang” of computer training? The Zoo’s most intelligent animal is gorilla Josephine, who has produced eight babies with the magnificent silver-back Charles. She absolutely loves tools and will offer to trade a banana for a maintenance man’s interesting looking instruments.

The Zoo’s future plans include a rain forest habitat for the Lowland Gorillas, a water play area for kids, an endangered species carousel and an animal nursery. Staff at the Conservation Connection Centre will advise you on the highly successful Adopt-a-Pond program that helps urban dwellers attract frogs and salamanders to their backyards or will tell you where to position a bat box for the ultimate natural mosquito control.

TIPS: It’s best to arrive early, before 9 a.m. in the summer as the animals are lively; the zoo generally starts letting people in around 8:50 a.m. As many groups of Canada geese reside on zoo property, there are a lot of droppings. Though zoo staff are trying to correct this problem by modifying habitats and controlling population growth, the geese continue to use the grounds as a feeding and breeding area. In the meantime, get the kids to wear shoes that can be easily cleaned just in case they run into a poop zone. If your little ones tire easily, rent a stroller or a wagon at the entrance. Wheelchairs are free.


Getting There: Toronto Zoo, 361A Old Finch Ave., Scarborough, Ontario, M1B 5K7, 416/ 392-5929; Fax 416/392-5863, www.torontozoo.com.

The zoo is in the northeastern section of Toronto, about half an hour’s drive from downtown. Take the Don Valley Parkway to Hwy 401 East, then exit 389 and follow the signs. The xoo is 1 mile north of Hsy 401 on Meadowvale Road.

Serengeti Bush Camp Overnights: Bush Camp takes place from the third week of May to the end of October. The camp is for ages six and up. Our visit had a range of kids from 6 to 15. The entire program takes place in the African Svanna and there will be no access to the rest of the zoo until 9:30 the next morning. The cost is $90 for ages 12 and up and $80 for kids. This includes dinner, breakfast, snacks and drinks, sleeping accommodations, programs such as Meet the Keeper and guided hikes, and a zoo pass for the following day. You need to bring sleeping bags, or bedding and pillow, towel and wash cloth, comfortable walking shoes (there’s a surprising amount of hiking), hat and sunscreen, insect repellent, and flashlight for a night lite. Note: no radios, roller blades or bicycles allowed at the Zoo. Call 416/392-5947.

What it costs: Regular zoo admission costs $12 per adult, $7 per child 4-11 and $9 for children 12-17 and seniors 65 plus. No charge for kids under 3. Within 2 hours of closing time, admission fee is reduced by $2. Open year round daily except Christmas Day.

Meals: For food breaks, there are two-full service restaurants and six snack bars on site as well as picnic tables where you can set up your own packed lunches. The Family Centre adjacent to the African Pavillion has changing rooms and a nursing station. Bottle warming is provided at any restaurant along with a supply of baby foods.





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