A place to pet unusual but very friendly animals, a fascinating attraction and an educational centre, a zoological laboratory and a city farm. This all is about the Petting Zoo opened on 31 August after an overhaul. Director of the Zoo Svetlana Akulova told us what children and adults are to discover on the grounds fully upgraded within two years.
When did the Moscow Zoo open a Petting Zoo? What will be fundamentally new for visitors after the reconstruction, and what will remain the same following established traditions?
As you know, the Moscow Zoo is divided into parts: the old part opened in 1864, with the new one opened in 1926. The latter includes a Petting Zoo, an area covering about 1 ha. There were favourable conditions to establish a Petting Zoo as early as the 1950s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that the concept started to develop. In October 1996, it opened in the new part. Opening of the Petting Zoo after the reconstruction is a long-awaited milestone event. We are happy to open a place for young Muscovites and Moscow guests to get acquainted with the animal world in the most comfortable and amusing way in the year of the Moscow Zoo's 155th anniversary.
Upgrading the Petting Zoo, we relied on the high standards and recommendations of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and the best world practices. The enclosures meet all the requirements for different species of animals. Each of them has special houses and shelters for pets to hide and have a rest from public attention. Besides, the enclosures are all-season, so our Zoo inhabitants will feel equally comfortable in summer and winter. By the way, we used mainly natural and eco-friendly materials, because we care not only for comfort and safety, but also for our guests’ health.
What animals does the Petting Zoo offer after the reconstruction?
We have managed to build a diverse and, so to say, unusual collection, and I'm sure it will appeal both to our new visitors, and our regular judiciary guests. It features domestic breeds of mammals and birds: Alpaca, Scottish highland cow, Welsh goats and sheep, Cameroon goats, Ouessant sheep, Sebastopol geese, turkeys, Brahma, Sebright and Chabo chickens, Orloff and Pavlov chickens, pheasants and peacocks, English Spot pygmy rabbits and many others.
It is difficult to single out one animal, as all our inhabitants are unique in their own way. Perhaps, I would highlight the stars of our collection, Poitou donkeys and Border Leicester sheep. The latter look really amazing: they are large with curly and very soft wool and elongated ears resembling those of a hare, so I call them 'hare sheep'. Also, we take pride in our Poitou donkey. We have this species in the Moscow Zoo for the first time ever! Poitou is one of the rarest and least known donkey breeds. Its thick brown hair hangs down to the ground, tangling like dreads. Our collection boasts two Poitou female donkeys, they are still very young and sheered, but later their wool will grow down to reach the ground.
Will the cubs be kept separately from the adults?
No, they will live as a family, it is good for them. There are some old couples in enclosures, each with their own personality and habits. One funny black-and-white goat has been bossing around, although it is the youngest one in the enclosure, but still it tries to organise everyone. It was also the first to climb an artificial hill built for goats. It is very funny to watch.
A question that bothers both adults and children: what is the right way to communicate with animals?
All enclosures are designed in a way to let the animals decide what they want to do, have a contact, or leave and hide. Keepers must be present in the petting area all the time, as visitors must not stay alone with the animals. Moreover, at first you need to behave as delicately as possible with the inhabitants of the updated Zoo, because not all of them have adapted to the new conditions and many are just getting used to their enclosures.
However, some of them already feel at home, for example, Cameroon goats that used to live in the Petting Zoo before. Being very active, they feel comfortable and very confident, demonstrating who is the boss here. There is a trampoline and a slide for 'mountaineering' installed for them, as their ancestors in the wild used to climb incredibly high on vertical surfaces, steep rocks and ledge edges. There will be a lot of such amusement attractions for these goats mounted.
Zoo keepers will admit visitors to the open petting area depending on the pets’ condition. If experts decide that too many visitors have a bad effect on the animals, access will be restricted. If an animal is fed up, it goes to its shelter. In addition, during peak days with too many visitors, they will temporarily close petting areas, informing visitors that the animals have to rest. On average, some 70,000 people a day visit Moscow Zoo in the high season, so the petting area's opening hours must be adjusted so as to avoid a bad effect on animals' health.
We are happy to see more civilised and understanding visitors today, as they seem to evolve with us. They used to bring their own treats for animals before, but now they mostly buy them on the spot, as these foods are made taking into account the animals' physiology. Sometimes we can see an elderly woman pulling out a loaf of bread from her bag, and her grandson says: "You can't do that." It is very nice to hear.
So, visitors are free to feed animals
Yes, they are. But you cannot bring your own food to the petting area; there is a vending machine with a special food to buy. A portion of food drops right in your hand, not in a container, so that children couldn't take it somewhere else to feed other animals.
But visitors are allowed to communicate with animals not only on the petting area. There is a city farm on the Petting Zoo grounds. Here you will find our Gavryusha, a red Scottish bull. He loves being stroked on his nose. It is absolutely safe, as he is kind and incredibly friendly, I love him so much.
When the animals were settling in the new enclosures, a new funny family appeared on the farm: two alpacas and a lamb that had decided it was an alpaca, too. You know, it was raised by people, and it had contacts with people only, never approaching an animal. And when it spotted alpacas in an adjacent enclosure, it went up to them and, apparently, fell in love, as it imagined that it had always been alpaca, too. When we tried to take it away, it got depressed, and we gave in: OK, let's call it an alpaca. It's so cute: the lamb follows them anywhere they go, they treat it kindly, and it is very happy about it. This is good for it, as it mostly mixes with animals now, not people. Perhaps, from an educational perspective, it is not the best choice, but our animals' welfare is our priority, so we have given it an opportunity to live and just enjoy itself.
Are zookeepers volunteers or skilled professionals?
Keepers are animal care specialists. Most of them are graduates of the Zoo's Young Biologists Club. They improve their skills at the Academy of the Moscow Zoo, which received an educational license in 2016. It trains both our future employees, students who want to work in other zoos of Russia, Europe and Asia, and our visitors, as we deliver lectures on pet care for them.
What else do the upgraded grounds offer, apart from the petting area and the farm?
The new Petting Zoo's major mission is to teach children environmental literacy. The grounds have separate waste collectors and a photo zone made of recycled waste. Volunteers tell visitors about different waste processing technologies. Soon, we will offer biology and environment lectures, kind of an after-school club, themed birthday parties and other events for children.
There are a lot of information stands around with interesting facts about animals. There are attractions, too, but not common ones, they are really insightful: special 'jump meters' allow children to compare who jumps higher, kids or Zoo inhabitants, with a climbing wall offering a quest to find secret interactive points while climbing. There are also game zones with street construction sets, Sand Glade children's playground and much more.
The city farm has two laboratories with real offices of our zoologists, with a glass wall for kids to observe what is happening there. One has an incubator with poultry hatching, and the other one provides artificial conditions for chicks to grow up.
You are welcome to visit the aviary, which is home to different birds, mostly forest ones. You can watch, but don't stroke or touch them. Quail running on the ground are amusing too, making holes in the lawn to lay eggs.
Budgies helped us to test the aviary. A mesh over the enclosure has openings for trees growing, and we let them to fly around to check for some gaps and slits for small birds to escape. They showed us spots to escape: some of them got out of the enclosure through the slits. But they did not fly far, soon they came back for food. Zoologists had a joke that only the laziest birds had stayed in the aviary. But I said that not the laziest, but the smartest ones stayed, the ones unwilling to fly too far from food. No budgies were harmed, all of them came back to stay with us.
An extensive educational programme, including various classes for schoolchildren, will be one of the main highlights of the new Petting Zoo. But what about classes for adults?
The classes for adults at the Petting Zoo will focus on advising how to open your own Zoo. You will find out how to care for various species, how to build contact with the animal, as well as about some red-tape intricacies to know before opening, namely how to register necessary documents, choose and rent a site, get it approved by the city administration and so on.
We think this is important to discuss, as people often seek our advice concerning all these matters. Because sometimes it happens that a person gets inspired by the experience of the Moscow Zoo and wants to open a small private zoo. An investor invests money without going into the details. But when it comes to inspections, you are told: "You did everything wrong." They close up your zoo, take away your animals and so on. Animals suffer, and your business is over. We're launching the classes to help avoid such situations. Find the start date on our website.
In fact, it is my dream project. I don't want to tell people: "You did it wrong", but I want to tell them how to do it right, how to avoid mistakes. I hope that with our educational activities, Moscow will see some more nice zoos soon. As for our updated Petting Zoo, I hope it will bring a lot of good vibes and insights.