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Windmills west of Salina and east of Hays, KS, a photograph taken through the windshield of my car.

As I have been writing about in this series of diaries, I made a car trip across the state of Kansas to visit my brother in Denver.  I grew up in Kansas and when I was little we went west to see the national parks, often going or coming home along I-70, that great artery between Maryland and Utah.  More to the point, it ran through my hometown of Lawrence, KS, and it was from there that I set out on my adventure last month.  

On my way west I had originally planned to take a break in Salina, where there was a zoo I've been hearing about for decades.  But it was a really hot day (the thermometer in my car read 99 degrees the minute I left Salina), and I decided that walking around a zoo at noon on the hottest day of the year might not be the most pleasant experience, so I went on to the Sternberg Museum in Hays and then to Colby.

But the Rolling Hills Zoo remained on my "to do" list and on the return trip the weather was a bit more reasonable (93 by noon, and much less humid to boot), and I stopped off the interstate six miles west of Salina to visit this relatively new zoo, which grew from an exotic animal collection in the 1980s to a small but very fine zoo with over 100 different types of animals, focusing on the curation and breeding of very rare animals.

The entrance into the Rolling Hills Zoo in the Flint Hills west of Salina.
Come with me below the fold to wander through a very fine small zoo where you can really get up to see the animals closely.  

As with the other museum experiences on this trip, there were very few people there with me.  So I had the time I wanted to spend looking at the animals, and often it was only them and me.  Of course, they were behind glass or fences or wire cages.  But that was not always enough.  You did at times have to be a bit careful to keep your hands on your side of the fence.  

Chilean Flamingo, one of the few animals at the zoo whose population was listed as being "stable" in the wild.
I don't know if this Chilean flamingo would use that fierce beak on someone's injudiciously placed fingers, but it would have been very easy to have rested your hands atop or even over the edge of the railing.  The flamingo paced back and forth, watching the visitors who were looking in at him (her?).  This was the first animal you met as you walked past the gift shop into the animal area.  And this particular animal took the job of welcoming and monitoring visitors very seriously.  Of course, not all of the animals were so open and viewable, or accessible in their own way.
A sign next to the first of the Big Cats' cages.
I bought a pass on their tram that ran around the zoo, but I never used it.  Instead I chose to wander slowly from one installation to the next, and the animals I most wanted to see were very close to the entrance.  You could hear the huffing before you could see the animal.  A leopard's spots are clearly very effective at hiding in the forest.
An Amur leopard in the dappled leaves.
These were the Amur Leopards, examples of the world's most endangered big cats.  There are probably no more than 30 of them in the wild (the forests of eastern Russia), and there may be no more than one sustainable breeding population.  There are more of them (200 or so) in zoos around the world, but all of those are descendants of only nine individuals, which makes the genetic diversity frighteningly limited, and there has been talk of removing the remaining animals from the wild to provide diversity in the population that is being sustained.  
This is the Amur Leopard, the rarest of the big cats, and a muscular animal if I have ever seen one.
Honestly, the first thing I saw in the cage was a very chirpy mama cardinal, and that made me think perhaps the leopards weren't there at all.  But then I saw the one shown above stalking through his (her?) enclosure.  The two leopards were in separate adjoining cages, and while I was there they were playing patty cake through the bars (was this a game or jockeying for dominance?  I don't know, but there were paws flying through the bars although no roars).  

A couple with their young son came by as I stood there, and the little boy called out to the leopard "Here, kitty!" but the creature continued his progress through and around the cage, ignoring the little boy as he had ignored the songbird earlier.

The tigers were not out, but the snow leopard was.  And not particularly happy about it.  These are mountain animals, and not made for the heat of a Kansas summer, and the animal's disgust was clearly expressed by its refusal to come out its lair.

If you look into the shadows you will see the snow leopard staring back at you.
In contrast, the cougar (whose name was "Charlie Bear" according to a sign posted in the viewing area next to his cage) is native to the area no matter what the authorities say.  There are mountain lions/cougars regularly spotted in my region of northeast Missouri and these are not, in spite of reassurances from the Department of Conservation, only lone males wandering from their homes in the Dakotas.  Anecdotal evidence is that there are breeding populations here, and throughout Kansas as well (friends of mine have seen large paw prints next to much smaller ones, for example). This is one of the few animals at the Rolling Hills zoo that is not endangered.
One of the most interesting animals I never got to see.  The Maned Wolf (neither a true wolf nor a fox) was not out to be seen.  But the sign next to the enclosure helpfully told the visitor that "Maned wolves mark their territory with urine which smells like the spray of a skunk."  Interesting, I thought, and went on to see if I could find one among the grasses.  Nope, but I found myself thinking that they really should be careful to keep the skunks out of the enclosures...

Then I got it.  I am a bit slow at times.

There was a wonderful reptile house (you can see feedings every day at 11:30 am), where I saw chuckwallas, iguanas, gila monsters, tortoises, various snakes, and I also had my second encounter with poison dart frogs in a week.  The animal I had never seen before, as far as I can remember, is the tentacled snake, a Southeast Asian water snake that seems to use its tentacles to attract the fish that are its prey.  

The tentacle snake of Southeast Asia.
By the side of the path further on my trek around the zoo, I found a statue of a Galapagos tortoise.  I remember being four and going to the St. Louis zoo, where you could ride on the back of one of those animals.  I doubt they let you do that anywhere these days.  At the St. Louis zoo you can pet animals, including sting rays, but I don't think you can ride on a giant tortoise.  A statue is a second best, but it will do, I suppose!
A statue of a Galapagos tortoise by the side of the path.
Another animal I had never seen before was the Sichuan Takin, which the sign helpfully informs is pronounced to rhyme with "rockin'."  This is a relative of the goat (a very big goat, which adult males weighing 1400 pounds and females 1000).  It has a funny rolling walk I couldn't really capture on video, but it seemed as if its back legs didn't bend very easily so it swung them out to the sides as it walked.  
The Sichuan Takin, from China.
The thing that I think was most valuable about being in a very empty zoo was my encounter with the primates.  Being able to watch them with no rambunctious children or supercool harassing teenagers (or just general jerks who are old enough to know better but apparently never were told to be polite and quiet around other people and animals) gave me a chance to see them over a longer period than normally available.  And they were not angry with being on display, just quietly going about their own business, so I watched them doing that.  And I felt very different than I had ever felt before.  The first one I saw was the Mandrill who was sitting in his cage, slowly picking at the bark of a tree.  
The Mandrill is the world's largest monkey.
I had seen monkeys before but I hadn't watched them with their hands so similar to mine doing something I would have done if I were bored.  There was suddenly such a visceral understanding and horror of being caged that was clearly my projecting my own feelings on the animal in front of me (no matter how closely related to me it was).  
Watching me watching him.  
The chimpanzees were equally impactful.  Those eyes were clearly understanding, intelligent and as aware of me as I was of them.  The quiet of the zoo and the emptiness of the pathways allowed the animals to be more relaxed than I was used to in a zoo.  This was for better or worse, as the chimpanzees were disturbingly human to me, something I am still having to process.  The orangutan was quite human, too, with his fixation deep in a box of Honey Nut Cheerios.  
A hungry orangutan with a sweet tooth.
The anteater was pacing, one of the rhinos was immersed almost completely in a pool of water, and the lions were sleeping in the shade.  While if you were lucky the giraffes would come and take a leaf of lettuce from your hand, on the day that I was there they were more interested in licking the chain link fence.  The Aardvark seemed to have it figured out, however.
An Aardvark sleeping in the sun.
I saw two zookeepers in my time at the zoo, one in the Ape house and one in the American alligator display in the reptile house, where she was trying to clean the pool and kept pulling the animals out of the water while they kept going back in.  
She eventually got them out of the pool so she could clean it, but these American Alligators kept trying to sneak past her back into the water.
There were more people here than there had been at any other museum I stopped in as I went across Kansas.  There would have been more people at the Topeka Zoo, of course, or the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, and certainly the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson.  But you probably have heard about those places.  And you might even go to Lawrence for the university museums there (I recommend the art and natural history museums).  

You probably haven't visited all of the places I have highlighted in these three diaries.  I hope you investigate the out-of-the-mainstream museums, zoos, and tourist attractions.  Roadside attractions are not all giant balls of string or "World's Largest Prairie Dog" (although I am sure that is worth seeing as well).  Take a look at these three attractions and try some others as you road trip.  

I leave you with a video of what Kansas means to me.  When I say it is stunningly beautiful, this is what I mean.

UPDATE, or more properly something I forgot to put in the tip jar:

One final thing tying things together for me was a look at the Avian Dinosaurs (aka birds) -- the giant, non-flight-enabled ones -- the ostriches:

I look at birds like this and I can see them as dinosaurs and I appreciate the idea of classifying them as Avian Dinosaurs (as opposed to non-Avian Dinosaurs).  Picture a giant one of these.  These are amazing enough as it is.

I will leave you with a sign in the Sternberg Museum you see in the dinosaur hall.  It is even more applicable at a zoo with large dinosaur-ish birds.  

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Wed Aug 06, 2014 at 09:55 PM PDT.

Also republished by Kansas & Missouri Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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