By Ana Cecilia Oliveira
The Brasilia Zoo may have been forgotten by most Brasilia residents—those without small children in the family, at least—or written off as a decrepit childhood remnant, but it is still a vibrant place! Out of curiosity as to how the zoo had changed in the ten years we hadn’t been there, my family decided to visit last Friday (29). What we found is a place full of helpful volunteers and exquisite animals.
One of the first animals we came across was the zoo’s newest resident, a spectacled bear! Nei, an eight-year-old male, arrived in Brasilia on September 9, having come all the way from the Rio Grande do Sul Zoological Park. He is the zoo’s first bear of this species since it opened its doors in 1957.
The spectacled bear gets its name from the distinctive markings around its eyes, which resemble eyeglasses. It is the only bear species native to South America, and there are two zoos in Brazil with breeding pairs of the species. The zoo in Rio Grande do Sul is one of them, and Nei comes from that lineage. His arrival is part of an exchange between the two zoos; in return, our local zoo sent a male maned wolf.
According to a zoo employee I interviewed, the zoo’s next move will be two acquire two adult females in an attempt to start breeding them. The spectacled bear is an endangered species, and there has recently been a movement in South America zoos to create more breeding pairs and protect the animals’ genetic diversity. The same employee said the zoo is negotiating with other zoos in Bolivia for female spectacled bears.
When I visited him, Nei was pacing his 800-square-meter enclosure and occasionally playing with his water tank. “You’re lucky to catch him awake!” a zoo volunteer told me, “Spectacled bears are nocturnal, and he usually sleeps during the day. This is unusual behavior for him.”
It seemed to be a very auspicious day all-around, since we were also able to see a black panther and Pantanal jaguar playing, two cougars sunbathing, and two very friendly elephants who came over to the edge of the paddock to say hi.
In addition to the animals in enclosures, all sorts of others roam freely around the zoo: small micos navigate the fences between enclosures; dozens of wildcats move in and out of the paddocks. Even capybaras can be found relaxing with the giraffes and walking through the grounds! “They [the capybaras] like the popcorn,” a vendor told me, laughing at the capybara that approached him hopefully, “That’s why they come!”
The Brasilia Zoo also boasts an enclosed butterfly garden, where butterflies of 14 different species flutter freely, often landing on unsuspecting visitors. As I was entering, a man was kept from leaving because there were three butterflies on his baseball cap that had to be removed! Visiting the butterfly garden is also an educative experience, since it is staffed by friendly volunteers who are more than willing to answer questions.
“Most of us are studying biology in college and know a lot about butterflies!” Sarah, a volunteer, told me. She also explained that, contrary to popular belief, butterflies don’t live solely off of nectar from flowers. Many species feed off of decomposing animal carcasses or rotting fruit. This is why, in some cultures, butterflies are a symbol of death. According to Sarah, you can also tell the age of a butterfly by looking at its wings: older butterflies have wings that are more worn or even deformed, missing pieces due to wear and collisions.
“Some of these animals were rescued from the wild, but we can never return them because they’ve become too used to humans,” said a volunteer in the deer area. This is the case with one of the zoo’s red deer, who is blind. After spending years in the zoo, these animals lose their fear of humans and the defense mechanisms developed to survive in nature. This is why many came to greet us when we came close to the enclosure’s fence, instead of fleeing and hiding.
I may have been skeptical about the zoo’s entertainment value when I first arrived, but I learned a lot from its knowledgeable volunteers and the animals I was able to see. The atmosphere is enjoyable, since the grounds are full of wildlife, trees, and small lakes. Friendly volunteers and guards are scattered around the entire perimeter, making it an enjoyable and informative experience for people of all ages, not just families with young children!
As a general tip: do not visit the zoo from the hours of late morning to early afternoon. These are very sunny times so that the animals aren’t likely to come out, and also peak times when the zoo is packed with people—especially on weekends! But, if you are new to Brasilia or haven’t visited in a while, it is a worthwhile trip on a cloudier afternoon or early morning!