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Baltimore Zoo goes African


This weekend's grand opening of the African Watering Hole brings a welcome new dimension to the Baltimore Zoo.

White rhinoceroses, zebras, ostriches, sable antelopes, Thompson's gazelles, pink-backed pelicans and a variety of exotic African birds will be roaming a six-acre savannah habitat at the zoo. "This fascinating array of wildlife will provide visitors with a real opportunity to see and understand life on the African plains," zoo director Brian Rutledge says.

The zoo's 158-acre spread in Druid Hill Park is home to more than 1,200 mammals, birds and reptiles. That's quite an expansion from an inventory that in the early days consisted of nine deer, four swans, three wild geese and 24 ewes. (An old carriage house was soon converted into a monkey residence).

Created by the General Assembly in 1876 "for the purpose of public exhibition for the instruction and recreation of the people," the Baltimore Zoo is the third oldest such collection in the nation. During its history, it has had its ups and downs. A pictorial essay, "Druid Hill Park Revisited," recalls that by the turn of the century, the animal collection declined due to public apathy and competition from a large commercial zoo operating at Mount Royal and Maryland avenues. By the late '40s, the story continued, the Baltimore Zoo animal count had fallen from 502 specimens to 169. A major reconstruction started in 1948 under the direction of Arthur Watson, the long-time zookeeper.

While the zoo has always splendidly achieved its mission, it has often weathered financial difficulties. Even the new African exhibit could not be completed without a $150,000 grass-roots campaign because budget cuts threatened to leave the $4 million watering hole filled only with water.

In East Africa, tourists pay big money -- and stay up all night -- to witness goings-on at watering holes outside hotels in places such as Masai Mara, Kenya, and Serengeti, Tanzania. All that can now be seen in Baltimore for a modest admission fee. And if you go this weekend, African storytellers, musicians and dancers will add to the authenticity of the atmosphere.

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