Select a Zoo



The city of Palm Desert is sit­u­ated in the Coachella Val­ley south-​east of Los Ange­les close to the Joshua Tree national park. The high moun­tain ranges on three sides and a south-​sloping val­ley floor all con­tribute to the unique and year-​round warm cli­mate of Palm Desert, with the warmest win­ters in the west­ern United States. The arid cli­mate of Palm Desert deliv­ers an aver­age annual high tem­per­a­ture of 32°C, so, the 35°C and above dur­ing my visit was not excep­tional. Sum­mer high tem­per­a­tures of above 42°C are com­mon and some­times even exceed 49°C, while under 130 mm of annual pre­cip­i­ta­tion is aver­age [1].

So, Palm Desert is one of the warmest and dri­est places in the United States. And the Sono­ran desert is a unique place where they estab­lished The Liv­ing Desert Zoo & Gar­dens, a 480 hectares facil­ity that spe­cial­izes in plants and ani­mals found through­out the deserts of the world. You could say that the Zoo is one huge land­scape immer­sion exhibit. The enclo­sures can be found in a 45 hectares small part of the grounds which houses mostly desert or semi-​desert dwelling species. While most species in the Zoo are well-​adapted to local cir­cum­stances or have a broad habi­tat tol­er­ance, a few excep­tions are per­haps less well-​adapted to (semi)desert-like habi­tat, such as the giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and Cuvier’s gazelle. Nev­er­the­less, these species are kept accord­ing their habi­tat needs as well.

Many native and exotic endan­gered species can be seen in nat­ural sur­round­ings at The Liv­ing Desert, roughly divided into North Amer­i­can and African species.

Sonoran pondYou must pre­pare your­self for a hot, dry and sunny day when you visit The Liv­ing Desert – don’t for­get to put on a good sun­screen and bring bot­tled water. And when you don’t want to expose your­self too much to the hot cir­cum­stances and want to accli­ma­tise to the sit­u­a­tion, I would sug­gest you go left after the entrance. Start your visit in the North Amer­i­can sec­tion and first enter the part where the ten ecosys­tems of the North Amer­i­can deserts are rep­re­sented. In these immer­sion gar­dens with the dif­fer­ent ecosys­tem themes and cor­re­spond­ing (geo­graph­i­cal) names the rich fauna and espe­cially flora of the desert is on dis­play. This area with rich veg­e­ta­tion cov­ers at least 10 hectare, I think, with the enclo­sures and exhibits at a spa­cious dis­tance from each other.

In addi­tion you can visit the state-​of-​the-​art wildlife hos­pi­tal & con­ser­va­tion cen­ter, that was opened in Jan­u­ary 2002, that allows vis­i­tors to inter­act with the staff while pro­ce­dures are being per­formed on animals.

The aviaries in this sec­tion are not dif­fer­ent from most other zoos, which means that they are too small at least in my opin­ion. Although the Palm Oasis walk-​through aviary with turkey vul­tures pro­vides ample space for free flight. The red-​tailed hawk that is on dis­play has been brought in injured and is not to be reha­bil­i­tated (more infor­ma­tion here).

Coyote enclosure, The Living DesertThe first car­ni­vore you encounter when walk­ing from the entrance through the North Amer­i­can sec­tion is the coy­ote, a com­mon native species, that lives in flex­i­ble social struc­tures depen­dent on the avail­able prey. So, the fact that the Zoo has just a sin­gle spec­i­men liv­ing by itself is odd but not unusual for the species.

Fol­low­ing the foot­path up to the part of the Zoo far­thest away from the entrance you arrive at a sec­tion with a vari­ety of preda­tor enclo­sures. But there is an aviary to begin with, near the cougar enclo­sure, that houses Mex­i­can mil­i­tary macaw and thick-​billed par­rot (Rhyn­chop­sitta pachyrhyn­cha), of which the lat­ter was the last known native par­rot species in the con­tigu­ous U.S., Ari­zona and New Mex­ico. It dis­ap­peared in the early 1990s, and was suc­cess­fully rein­tro­duced since. Nev­er­the­less it is listed as Endan­gered in the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species™.

The cougar (Puma con­color) exhibit itself in a rich enclo­sure with trees, a pond, water­fall and stream, and a rock-​face rear wall with high level plat­forms. Fur­ther­more it pro­vides lots of shadow and hid­ing places. Next-​door the ser­val, an out­lier from Africa here in the Amer­i­can part, has got a more sim­ple enclo­sure at its dis­posal that lacks high level plat­forms. The bob­cats (Lynx rufus) (see video), kit fox and swift fox all have sim­i­lar enclo­sure with a sim­i­lar lay­out as the ser­val but they merely dif­fer in size. The exhibits are all quite secluded open-​top enclo­sures with view­ing win­dows that con­tain ver­ti­cal wire instead of glass, except for the bobcat’s.

The Mex­i­can wolf (Canis lupus bai­leyi) is the last preda­tor you encounter in this cor­ner. It occu­pies a nice elon­gated enclo­sure with undu­lat­ing ter­rain that pro­vides an area behind a hill which allows the ani­mal to hide from the public.

When you have fin­ished this cir­cu­lar walk­way along the preda­tors and push on along the cac­tus gar­den you will pass the North Amer­i­can ring­tail or miner’s cat (Bas­sariscus astu­tus), which is a mem­ber of the the rac­coon fam­ily thus not a cat, and the state mam­mal of Ari­zona. They some­times are called liv­ing fos­sils because the resem­ble very much their ances­tors from the Neo­gene period (23 mil­lion and 2.6 mil­lion years ago). And just a lit­tle bit fur­ther you’ll find the jaguar enclo­sure that has wire mesh all around, includ­ing the rooftop. The enclo­sure is rather low and lacks high level rest­ing or obser­va­tion plat­forms. There’s a pond and lots of desert veg­e­ta­tion but not many shady places. Though com­monly found in the rain­for­est the jaguar is one of those species that shows incred­i­ble ver­sa­til­ity with regard to its habi­tat as long as there is enough prey around. So, it does not nec­es­sar­ily stand-​out here in the Liv­ing Desert, but you could argue whether the enclo­sure is fit for purpose.

It was a gen­er­ous 35°C dur­ing my visit to the Zoo, so when I left the lus­ciously veg­e­tated area I was glad that not only the ani­mals are pro­vided with atom­iz­ers, but the vis­i­tors as well. At sev­eral places on the premises you’ll find this water spray equip­ment, misted rest spots they call them, that helps peo­ple to cool down and pre­vent overheating.

Along the edge of the Zoo grounds across from the jaguar North America’s fastest land ani­mal is kept, the prong­horn (Antilo­capra amer­i­cana). Prong­horn can reach top speeds of around 90 km/​h and can run at a steady pace of 50 km/​h for over 30 kilo­me­tres! [2]

Bighorn mountainOne of the loveli­est exhibits is next in line on this side of the Zoo, Bighorn Moun­tain. The indige­nous bighorn sheep species are hard to spot in their enclo­sure. Not only because they blend in superbly, but also because they can just go to the other side of their moun­tain (hill).

At this point you cross the geo­graph­i­cal bor­der and before you know it you’ve switched con­ti­nents and are watch­ing African species. The first mixed-​species exhibit appears with Abyssin­ian ground horn­bill and Cuvier’s gazelle, fol­lowed by a row of cages for small preda­tors on the other side of the foot­path. These upgraded old-​fashioned cages are not much to my lik­ing, and lack enrich­ment. As there is no veg­e­ta­tion to pro­vide shade there are sun­shades on the rooftop and atom­iz­ers pro­vide the essen­tial refresh­ment. The Ara­bian wild­cat, the sand cat and the fen­nec fox are kept here.

Three spec­i­mens of a medium-​sized ante­lope not native to Africa, the Ara­bian oryx, occupy a large desert-​like enclo­sure adja­cent to the pre­vi­ously men­tioned mixed-​species exhibit. It con­tains just a few trees to pro­vide shade, but it does resem­ble the native desert and steppe of the Ara­bian penin­sula. The Ara­bian oryx is one of the best exam­ples what zoos can do to con­serve species. It was extinct in the wild by the early 1970s, but was saved in zoos and pri­vate pre­serves and rein­tro­duced into the wild start­ing in 1980.

Neigh­bours of the oryx are the African wild dogs. They have an open-​top enclo­sure with wire mesh fences all around. There’s a hill in the mid­dle that pro­vides suf­fi­cient options to hide, a pool and a few trees for shade, but it is not very large though. An atyp­i­cal mixed-​species desert com­prises slender-​horned gazelle, grey crowned crane (Balearica reg­u­lo­rum) and yellow-​billed stork fol­lows, with another bird – the kori bus­tard – in a sep­a­rate enclo­sure next-​door.

Cheetah enclosure, The Living DesertWhile it is almost impos­si­ble to cre­ate sat­is­fy­ing envi­ron­ments for most ani­mals in cap­tiv­ity, it is even harder to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion that chee­tahs can express their nat­ural behav­iour – run­ning at high speed. Nev­er­the­less, at the Liv­ing Desert the two chee­tahs have a great exhibit at their dis­posal. Though not really a savannah-​like plain as it is rather undu­lat­ing, but it is large and elon­gated so some speed can be achieved when the cats want to stretch their legs.

Both the addax and drom­e­dary camel are housed on the same dull com­pound, though sep­a­rated by a wooden fence. The rea­son that I thought it is worth men­tion­ing the camel is the fact that this species well-​known for its adap­ta­tion to arid areas seemed to suf­fer from the local heat as much as I did:

A breed­ing pair of leop­ards is kept in a nice var­ied enclo­sure with lots of shade due to nat­ural veg­e­ta­tion (trees and shrubs), though it con­tains a near empty pool. There’s lit­tle expo­sure to the pub­lic due to only one small view­ing win­dow embed­ded in a rock face wall. Sev­eral high level obser­va­tion posts in the shadow, but a wire mesh rooftop at about 4 m high, which is rather low for this species to express its nat­ural behav­iour – climb­ing trees, unfortunately.

Just around the cor­ner in this sec­tion – with the African vil­lage WaTuTu as a geo­graph­i­cal reminder there’s the unavoid­able pet­ting zoo, called pet­ting kraal this time (kraal is South African for cor­ral) with Ankole cat­tle, Sicil­ian dwarf don­keys, and Niger­ian dwarf goats.

Savannah enclosure, The Living DesertThe high­light of my day came at the end of it, with the mixed-​species exhibit com­pris­ing retic­u­lated giraffe, greater kudu and ostrich. A large pad­dock — savan­nah in an undu­lat­ing land­scape, beau­ti­fully set against the back­drop of the Santa Rosa moun­tain range near Palm Desert, and a pool close to one of the savan­nah look­outs. Espe­cially the seem­ingly end­less grounds of the pad­dock, because you can­not see the end of it due to your posi­tion at the ‘foothill’ of the enclo­sure, was impres­sive, in addi­tion to the great light at that time of the day.

Well, as already men­tioned the grounds of The Liv­ing Desert cov­ers a larger area than just the col­lec­tion of exhibits. It is also a nature pre­serve, in fact, 435 of the 480 hectares are undis­turbed Sono­ran Desert. In the pre­serve there are three nature trails, all start­ing from the Liv­ing Desert, a hiker can choose from to expe­ri­ence the real undis­turbed desert. The Zoo closes these trails dur­ing sum­mer until Octo­ber due to the heat.

It is remark­able for a Zoo of such a size and inten­tions regard­ing con­ser­va­tion efforts that many ungu­lates are rep­re­sented by only a few spec­i­mens. This makes it less prob­a­ble to achieve good breed­ing results, and it also does not demon­strate good hus­bandry for hoofed ani­mals that live in herds in the wild.

A lot of indige­nous species can be seen in their native habi­tat, the desert, of the Zoo’s gar­dens. Dif­fer­ent lizard species, hum­ming­birds, and the odd rat­tlesnake do not recog­nise the bound­aries of the Zoo grounds and are there for you, besides the cap­tive species, to enjoy as well. Although I can imag­ine that a close encounter with a rat­tlesnake is not what most of us look for­ward to. Nev­er­the­less, it is a delight to stroll through this gar­den. Due to the lay­out of the North Amer­i­can sec­tion I found myself many times seem­ingly alone with nobody within hear­ing distance.

[1] = Wikipedia, Palm Desert, California

[2] = Tree­hug­ger, nat­ural sci­ences, 10.07.2013

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
Fol­low me on: