Now that school’s back, nearby Phoenix Zoo becomes an even more appealing destination

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A couple of weeks ago I had a strong wish to see a donkey and a howler monkey. This didn’t come out of nowhere. I was in the middle of reading Beatrice & Virgil, Yann Martel’s strange and compelling short novel in which the title characters are, respectively, a donkey and a howler monkey.

The book, which heartbreakingly explores the plight of animals in the context of human evil—it’s not for kids, by the way—filled me with the desire to get a clear physical sense of the animals it so endearingly describes.

As it happens, the Phoenix Zoo is close enough to my day job that in the morning I can often hear the hootings and crowing of creatures from around the globe. I had been wanting, anyway, to see the new additions to the collection, male and female komodo dragons.

So I did a lunch-break-long hurry-up tour through the menagerie. A zoo isn’t the sort of place you normally want to hurry through, but I was curious to see if I could satisfy my very specific animal-viewing goals in under an hour.

I asked, at the front gate, if they had a list available of all the animals in the collection. To my astonishment, the lady told me that I was the first person who had ever asked her for this. She then referred me to the nearby ranger station. The ranger there informed me that the zoo did, indeed, have howler monkeys, displayed on the “Forest of Uco” trail, which features South American fauna. She wasn’t sure about the donkey, but she checked, and sure enough, they had one donkey as well, named Pedro, in the children’s zoo.

It was a weekday afternoon and the school year hadn’t yet ended, so the zoo was quiet. Within 10 minutes, I was standing in front of the howler monkey cage. The bigger, darker-furred specimen, the male I presume, shuffled off into the shadows upon my arrival, but the smaller, caramel-colored specimen lounged in the trees, limbs and tail hanging, gazing at me with relaxed indifference. A lovely little primate, but a dimly visible silhouette behind the mesh, so I moved on.

A bit farther down, the path veered off over a little footbridge to the children’s zoo, which seemed to be deserted. Not only were there no children visible, there didn’t seem to be any keepers around. In a barn, however, I found a row of three stables. In the first two were horses, but over the door to the last was a sign that read “PEDRO.” The beast in question, grayish-brown with an elegant dark-brown cross pattern down his back and over his shoulders, was munching away from a feed trough.

I called him by name, gently, and he turned to look at me with startled dark eyes. He declined to come out and visit, though, returning to his lunch.

My own hour was almost up by now, but I had just enough time to stop by and see the zoo’s latest pride and joy: Komodo dragons, enormous carrion-eating reptiles from Indonesia, the world’s largest lizard. The smaller female was demurely resting under a log in her enclosure, but the big male, alone among the animals I saw that day, was in a sociable mood, lumbering around right near the glass and striking handsome poses suitable for photo-taking.

My point in all this? First of all, howler monkeys, donkeys and Komodo dragons are thrillingly cool animals, and if you haven’t seen any of them, you should, before the weather gets much hotter. And secondly, we’re fortunate here in that Valley to have a world-class zoo, less than a half-hour from the Kyrene Corridor.

If you ever need to see a howler monkey in a hurry, they can fix you up.

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