An ostrich patrols the fenceline at the Utica Zoo.

A Trip to the Zoo

by | Jan 19, 2016 | Birds, Reference Material, Wildlife |

Well, it certainly has been awhile, hasn’t it?

In mid-November, my 83 year old mom fell, fracturing a vertebra in her neck. The weeks that followed have been a blur of hospitalization, in-patient physical therapy, helping/giving moral support to my dad (now 92), and multiple interactions with the health care system: bloodwork, x-rays, and follow-up visits with doctors. As an only child, all of this “assisting” falls on me, though remarkably Dad is still Mom’s primary caregiver, but I’ve been busy, to say the least. She has improved tremendously, helped in no small part by taking her off several medications (with the doctor’s blessing) and so things finally seem to be smoothing out now.

Off to the Zoo

And that brings me to my first art “adventure” in many months: a trip to the zoo! The nearby city of Utica, New York (population 62,000 and change) is home to the Utica Zoo, a small regional zoo nestled on 80 acres of wooded parkland inside the city limits.

Why visit the zoo? Well, I’ve wanted to do a painting with a red fox in it for some time but I really don’t have any reference material of my own to speak of. I’ve glimpsed wild foxes (both red and gray) several times, but have had no opportunity to photograph them. The Utica Zoo’s website said they have a red fox in residence in their Children’s Zoo area, and with the day’s milder temperatures it seemed like a good time. Plus, since it’s January, the fox’s coat was sure to be thick and plush.

So, bundled against the chill and armed with my camera, off I went. Admission was modest ($4.25) and as you might imagine, I pretty much had the place to myself. The nice lady at the entrance gave me a map, and it quickly became obvious that I wouldn’t have time to see everything, so I focused on looking for my fox.

Red fox at the Utica Zoo.

The red fox, up high on his little “observation deck”.

Red Fox (No, not the guy in the TV show!)

The fox – a single male, as far as I could tell – perked up when I approached. I found him in his jungle-gym-y pen complete with a ladder to an upper level deck and catwalks. To get pictures, I had to manually focus on him, because the autofocus only wanted to take sharp pictures of the fence mesh. He had a lovely thick coat, but seemed a bit chubby, no doubt due to his sedentary lifestyle (a common problem with humans and zoo residents alike). I had half expected the fox to be curled up with his nose buried in his tail, sleeping. Instead, he was quite active, going up and down his ladder a couple times, stretching, nibbling on some food, and drinking out of his water bucket. I took a number of photos that will help if and when I can start a painting, but alas I’m still going to have to look for other reference, particularly video of wild foxes.

Lunch with the California Sea Lions

California sea lion swimming at the Utica Zoo.

The female California sea lion, swimming in their heated pool.

I also happened to be there in time to catch the 12:30 feeding of the California sea lions. Although their pool seemed a bit cramped for such large animals (the male weighs about 500 lbs.; the female is about half that), I was glad to see their meal was combined with interaction with their “keeper”. (Is that the correct term?) There was a nice give-and-take of hand signals and simple responses, followed by fish rewards.

California sea lion at the Utica Zoo.

The male sea lion orders lunch!

It was a very positive communication that reminded me of my dog obedience days and was much better, in my opinion, than the keeper simply dumping fish in the water and walking away. And, I noticed, each animal was fed separately – the male went into their shelter, while the female was fed first; then he came back out and had his meal. Everybody got their fair share of fish and attention, with no stealing or intimidation.

The Orphan and the Bad Boy

As is so often the case with animals in captivity, these two sea lions reside at the zoo because they can no longer live in the wild. The female was found as a day-old pup on a California beach, abandoned by her mother for reasons unknown. Wildlife officials took her in but she became too habituated to people to safely be released as an adult.

Likewise, the male, born in Oregon, became a bit of a rogue as a young adult, crossing highways and invading suburban backyards. He was captured twice, tagged and released into safer areas, but found his way back to the ‘burbs. The third time was the charm: some kids found him in their yard, thought he was cute and let him into the house. Their mom discovered him in her living room after she returned home from grocery shopping! At that point, it was clear to officials that this guy was also much too comfortable around humans to live safely as a “wild” sea lion.

The audience included a couple of moms with preschoolers in tow, and they commented on how smart and responsive the sea lions are. And that’s true, but I sometimes fear the the flip side: folks with no real knowledge of the natural world could easily conclude that wild sea lions might be just as friendly toward people as these two were. Having caught a glimpse of their teeth, I don’t think I’d want to make that assumption!

Aaaand, a World-Record Watering Can

World-record giant watering can at the Utica Zoo.

The Utica Zoo’s giant watering can. It’s 15-1/2 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, According to the Guiness Book of World Records, it’s the largest watering can in the world.

There is another section of the zoo that I’m particularly interested in seeing, but it was some distance from the Children’s Zoo and the map indicated that the path is more of a rough trail. I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting into with snow on the ground, so I figured I’d save that for another day – maybe in late March or early April when the snow is gone but before the animals start blowing their winter coats. According to the map, there’s a Canada lynx, Arctic fox and snowy owl in residence there.

Before leaving, I also got to see the famous (and somewhat infamous) giant watering can! Fifteen years ago, Utica’s mayor was, shall we say, rather eccentric. Not long before he abruptly resigned his position, he ordered a $6000, one-ton copper watering can “to inspire and encourage Growing a More Beautiful City”. If memory serves, the thing arrived at city hall on the back of a flatbed truck. With the mayor gone, nobody knew what to do with it, so it was delivered to the zoo. It now looms over a nice little landscaped area at the Children’s Zoo, where it apparently “waters” the pond during warm weather.


Hey folks! November Doe is now available as a FINE ART PRINT – from the original oil painting – on archival paper, canvas and more, starting at less than $20. Order today – it’s simple, safe and secure!

Whitetail doe in ferns

November Doe, original oil on canvas, 14″ x 18″


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