The Southern White Rhinos were magnificent animals, grazing behind a fence at the Jacksonville Zoo, across a grassy field.
As I stood admiring them and snapping pictures, a large ostrich suddenly appeared and advanced quickly towards me. At the same time, a Greater kudu, a striped African woodland antelope, approached me from my left. The two appeared to be buddies.
“That’s Jack the Ostrich,” Lucas Meers, special events and public relations coordinator said. “And the kudu’s name is Bomani.”
“Jack will come over for anything. Jack is really curious,” Meers said with a smile, reminding me to stand back from the fence. “He thinks everything is his – including the kudu.”
Jack and Bomani were just two of many fascinating animals I met that day on a Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Behind-the-Scenes African Veldt Walking Tour. The hour-long adventure is one of three behind-the-scenes tours that the zoo offers. The others are Range of the Jaguar and Tour of the Commissary, where meals are prepared for the zoo’s 2,400 animals.
While a regular admission ticket affords you plenty of opportunity to see the animals in the zoo’s 98 developed acres, a behind-the-scenes tour takes you along the perimeter access road and railroad tracks, where regular zoo visitors are not permitted unless on the train.
“With a normal admission, you are on your own,” mammal keeper Toni Piccolotti, who was my tour guide, told me. “With Behind-the-Scenes, you get a keeper that takes you around and talks about the animals. You get to ask any questions you want. It just gives you the zoo from a different perspective.”
I had plenty of questions and she answered them all as we toured behind the animal compounds that regular visitors see from the front.
We started at the Warthog barn, where three fat warthogs snoozed nearby in the shade of a large tree.
“Hey pigs – Bodie, Chico, Lenny!” Piccolotti called. They didn’t move. They were zonked.
“These warthogs are friendly,” she said with a grin. “Usually they come running over.”
They were fun to watch anyway from a close perspective behind the fence that runs around the zoo’s perimeter and intersects with the animal barns.
Next stop: the cheetahs, where “Roho” and “Steve” watched us from their shady spot. “These guys are superfast in the wild,” Piccolotti said. But they expend so much energy chasing prey that they have to wait an hour before they can eat it, she said.
We also visited two Kori Bustards, heavy flying birds from the African plains; a group of spotted Kenyan Crested Guinea Fowl, who came up to the fence and clucked at me; three Okapis, rare forest mammals from the Congo that are related to giraffes; three female Grevy Zebras, who also came close to the fence to check me out; an elephant named Ali, who began his life at Michael Jackson’s Neverland; and a group of friendly giraffes, who I got to hand feed apples and lettuce.
I asked lots of questions, and bonded with the animals in a way that I couldn’t have as a regular guest. It was fun.
“Behind-the-scenes tours are very popular,” Meers said. “Because you get an intimate tour.”