Not all of Arizona's wild critters are transplanted Easterners who have come for blue skies and warm temperatures. Contrary to its dry and desolate image, the state abounds with wildlife. Hundreds of familiar and exotic creatures can be seen daily in the four zoos of Tucson and Phoenix. Together, they offer Arizona visitors and residents alike a breathtaking picture of Arizona's natural world.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Perhaps the best-known of Arizona's zoos, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum -- situated on 186 acres 14 miles west of Tucson -- focuses exclusively on the animals, plants, geology and origins of the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona, southeastern California and northwestern Mexico. By so doing, it helps dispel the myth that deserts are barren, lifeless places.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum teems with life. Gaze out across the desert from the visitor walkway: All around you stand tall saguaro cactuses, some reaching 40 to 50 feet in height and 200 years or more in age. The plants dominate the landscape, a living testimony to the ability of nature to adapt to one of earth's harshest environments.
Strolling down the walkway is like taking a journey through the Sonoran Desert and its many habitats. Mountain lions prowl along steep rock ledges and cliff faces that overlook a rushing stream. Black bears and gray foxes share a mountain valley while rare Mexican wolves, now probably extinct in the wild, walk along another waterway.
Farther along the walkway are creatures more likely to inhabit the desert's more sparsely vegetated lower altitudes. Here, mule deer, jack rabbits, collared peccaries and coyotes seek shelter under native trees and shrubs from the sun. You might have to look carefully underneath desert shrubs to find one of the museum's smaller denizens, the diminutive kit fox. At five pounds, it is the smallest North American fox.
Next comes the cat grotto, with bobcats, margays, ocelots and jaguarundis. The margays and ocelots, with their exotic spotted coats, are especially beautiful.
One unusual exhibit at the museum features animals underground. Midday temperatures on the desert floor can reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, but a mere foot below the surface the temperature drops to 105 -- and to 85 at three feet. No wonder, then, that many different desert animals spend most of the day in underground burrows, emerging to look for food or mates only at night. Kit foxes, wood rats, bats, spadefoot toads, tiger salamanders, tarantula spiders and millipedes can be seen here.
Reid Park Zoo At Tucson's Reid Park Zoo, tall palms and thick bamboo stands line shaded pathways leading to exhibits of South American, African and Asian animals.
The sign at the 15-acre zoo's entrance invites visitors to "follow the yellow brick road," so follow it one does -- past giant anteaters, bright blue-and-green macaws, beautiful coscoroba swans, llamas, hoglike tapirs and rheas, large ostrich-like flightless birds. All hail from South America.
The road also travels past lion-tailed and pig-tailed macaque monkeys and to acrobatic white-handed gibbons, all three primates from Southern Asia. Other Asian animals at the Reid Park Zoo include tigers, leopards, Asiatic elephants and Malaysian sun bears.
Not to be overlooked are the animals of the African plains. Zebras, marabou storks, crowned cranes and ducks share an open savanna. Sleek servals, small cats that look like miniature cheetahs, prowl a nearby enclosure. Tall, thick pampas grass with white bushy tassels on top lines a naturalistic enclosure with artificial rockwork for lions. Strange-looking pygmy hippos lounge in a pool while another pool harbors wall-to-wall tilapias, a common freshwater fish that forms a mainstay of many Africans' diets.
Phoenix Zoo About 120 miles north of Tucson in Papago Park, amid rocky buttes that jut up from the ground, is the 125-acre Phoenix Zoo. Occupying land that once sported a fish hatchery, the Phoenix Zoo seeks to bridge the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's exclusive focus on Sonoran wildlife and the Reid Park Zoo's more traditional appeal. Thus, the Phoenix Zoo emphasizes animals and plants from the world's arid lands, but exhibits other wildlife as well.
In the zoo's 6.8-acre African savanna, tall giraffes eat hay stuffed high up in palm trees to simulate natural feeding behavior. Delicate thomson's gazelles graze on sparse vegetation while crowned cranes, marabou storks, kori bustards and griffon vultures share the grasslands, much as they would in the wild. Lions, cheetahs, leopards and white rhinos roam nearby enclosures.
Further on, the Arizona exhibit houses animals and plants native to the entire state. Cottontail and jack rabbits snooze in the midday sun under the drooping limbs and thin, pine-needle-like leaves of paloverde trees. Threatened desert tortoises, one of only three tortoise species native to the United States, munch lettuce. Screech owls, kangaroo rats and ringtails, a cat-like relative of raccoons, inhabit a desert-after-dark section.
A dozen different kinds of rattlesnakes on view here will either thrill or scare you, depending on your view of the reptiles. They include the Mojave rattler, king, garter and coachwhip snakes.
The Arizona exhibit also includes animals more typically thought of as inhabiting other parts of the United States. Pronghorns, burrowing owls, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles are on display, as is another common symbol of Arizona wildlife, the roadrunner.
The Phoenix Zoo has also become famous for its less-common inhabitants. In 1962, barely a year after the zoo was opened, it became the repository for the world's few remaining Arabian oryxes. A beautiful white animal with chocolate brown and black markings, the Arabian oryx was rapidly becoming extinct in Middle Eastern deserts. More than 200 Arabian oryxes have been born at the Phoenix Zoo. More than 30 still live there, and eight to 10 are typically on display.
Wildlife World Zoo Wildlife World Zoo, about 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix in Litchfield Park, is the newest of Arizona's four zoos. Situated on 40 acres, it provides visitors with an intimate view of exotic animals from around the world.
Wildlife World houses about 125 bird species. One aviary holds nearly five dozen lories, magnificent rainbow-hued birds from Indonesian and Pacific islands. Three times a day visitors are given apple slices to feed the lories, which hop onto human arms, shoulders and heads to gain their treats.
Another aviary has three separate wire mesh cages connected by thin mesh tunnels. Finches here display their flying prowess by twisting and turning through the tortuous tunnel pathways.
Wildlife World also features aquariums with small sharks, eels and other tropical fish. A tropics building houses terrariums containing various nonpoisonous snakes and other reptiles. And the zoo has some unusual predators, including the mysterious maned wolf from South America and the singing dog, a dingo from New Guinea.
Jeffrey P. Cohn, a freelance writer in Takoma Park, is an acknowledged zoo nut. WAYS & MEANS Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson, Ariz. 85743, 602-883-2702. Admission is $6, $1 for children 6 to 12.
Reid Park Zoo, 1100 S. Randolph Way, Tucson, Ariz. 85716, 602-791-4022. Admission is $2, 50 cents for children 5 to 14.
Phoenix Zoo, 5810 E. Van Buren St., Phoenix, Ariz. 85008, 602-273-1341. Admission is $6, $3 for children 4 to 12.
Wildlife World Zoo, 16501 W. Northern Ave., Litchfield Park, Ariz. 85340, 602-935-9453. Admission is $5.50, $3 for children 3 to 12.