At first glance this large, two-storied, red brick building looks more like a rural high school than an extraordinary exhibit showcasing some of the most fascinating creatures that inhabit the Amazon of South America. Entering on the first floor your first encounter is within a large pool that resembles a river in the Amazon. Here you’ll find two species of fresh water sting rays. Their dark colouring, one with yellow spots, is in stark contrast to the pale coloured gravel below. Next is a massive tank of 27,000 gallons, holding a variety of fish found in the Amazon River, including the arapaima. At up to ten feet long and weighing 300 pounds the arapaima is one of the largest fresh water fish in the world. Looking more like a silver torpedo than a fish, the arapaima is unique as it breathes air. In what is set up like a mock Amazon research station there are more interesting, as well as endangered, animals such as tarantulas, frogs and more fish.
It was the second floor of Amazonia that really blew my mind. This 15,000 sq. ft habitat takes you on an almost literal walk through a forest path deep in the Amazon. Stepping on to the winding path you are immediately surrounded by breathtaking canopies rising high over head, lush and dense greenery envelopes you. The canopies, the river running through it and on its shores can be found teeming with wildlife. From the two-toed sloth hidden behind a giant leaf, titi monkeys sitting in the crotches of trees, insects and amphibians exploring the forest floor to all the brilliantly bright coloured birds littering the trees and river banks and of course the ever sweet red-footed tortoise sauntering along, this Amazon habitat is rich with life. Though I must admit I only saw a few of the animals that call this habitat home, such as the sunbittern perched on an open branch, tanagers fluttering about and roseate spoonbills gazing into the river from a nearby log, I can greatly appreciate the effectiveness of this exhibit as you aren’t guaranteed to see wildlife in the wild.
One thing I must touch on is the fact that some zoo visitors are upset when viewing an exhibit because they either cannot see the animal or it’s too far away. I’ve dealt with this quandary a lot and try to be respectful to their upset, but I sometimes want to say would it be better if the animal was in a small enclosure with nowhere to hide, would that make you feel better? Zoos have come a long way from small, cement, barred cages and though zoos still depend on their visitors support they must also take in to account the animals well being. Many animals thrive in spacious exhibits that resemble their native habitat and require places to hide either from the elements or from the public.
The Amazonia exhibit is the epitome of artistry, visitor emersion within an exhibit and mastery when it comes to the Smithsonian National Zoo’s attention to detail in creating open enclosures for a variety of species to co-habit and educate the public on the beauty of the vanishing rainforests of the Amazon and the chance to connect with these endangered species in the hopes of realizing the need for conservation.