A lone Mexican wolf stands across the gully, the breeze blowing his fur back like a model on a cover shoot. Out of sight in the shadows, our guide assures us, the other wolves languish in the heat, longing to stand in front of the blowing fan that is the place of privilege in the wolf enclosure at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Springs California.
Indeed, the breeze from the fan looks like a very welcome respite from the pressing heat of the desert sun currently reddening my shoulders despite the thick layer of 60 SPF sunscreen.
The Living Desert Zoo is home to 430 animals from 150 species and 1000 species of plants, all of them particularly suited to life in the desert … unlike me and my sunburned shoulders.
Learning how the animals keep cool in the desert heat is a fascinating part of the visit. Operating under the mandate of “Desert conservation through preservation, education, and appreciation” Living Desert follows the trend in zoos of showcasing species which are native, if not to the area, at least to the climate. You won’t find blistering polar bears or piping hot penguins at Living Desert!
Taking a guided tour or participating in one of the daily “Wildlife Wonder Shows” or animal chats is a great way to make your visit more than just a stroll past the animals. The animals are built for life in the desert, and there’s a lot to learn about how to survive life in desert extremes.
In the bird aviary, we watch a roadrunner gathering in the heat of the sun by raising his wings to expose the dark skin under his feathers. The roadrunners slow in the cool desert evenings and get sluggish (don’t let Wyle E. Coyote know!) In the morning they lift their feathers and bathe in the sun to reinvigorate themselves. Luis, the Mexican wolf who loves the fan also likes to crawl right into his drinking water. The stealthy jaguars have a pond they will sit in, right up to their necks, always keeping a watchful eye above the water line.
Even with the built-in adaptations for desert living, some of the animals need a helping hand from the zookeepers. Hosing off with a cooling spray of water and blocks of ice with fruit inside to chew on are some fan favourites of the animals. In the extreme heat, the zookeepers keep a watchful eye on their animal charges. The ageing resident Cape porcupine, normally right at home in warm African climes finds the California summers a bit much, so spends the hottest months in the temperature controlled comfort of the Tennity Wildlife Hospital and Conservation Centre. I feel you Mr Porcupine, air conditioning is my friend too!
Special considerations are made even for the quintessential desert animals: camels! While I would have loved to try my hand at camel back riding, during the summer the camels take a break from lugging tourists around. You can feed a giraffe year round though! The long black sandpapery tongue wrapping around a proffered carrot gave me a case of the giggles like nobody’s business.
Like the animals that make adjustments for the heat, the facility also has to make seasonal changes. The nature trails that scale Eisenhower Peak and line the 1200 acres of land the Living Desert sits on are another way to get up close and personal with the desert. In the unforgiving Sonoran summer, it is dangerous for even experienced hikers to be out there and the trailhead is barred. The 3300-foot G-scale model train display is partially shuttered for the summer too.
The Living Desert Zoo is open every day of the year (excluding Christmas), and whenever you find yourself in Palm Springs, a visit is well worth your time. From the beginning of October until the end of May, the zoo is open from 9 am until 5 pm (with some special events in the evenings.) During the summer, it is open only from 9 am until 1:30 pm. In the afternoon it is often too hot for human visitors, and the animals rest in the shade, making getting a good look at them difficult.
To plan your visit to the Living Desert Zoo, please visit the website. Families with young children will want to make sure there is enough time to have some fun at the Gecko Gulch playground, riding the Endangered Species carousel, and learning by doing in the Miriam U. Hoover Discovery Centre.
Many thanks to the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens and Visit Palm Springs for hosting our group.