Animal kingdom

Jan 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

On a bright day at the Detroit Metropolitan Zoo, only a handful of people wander over the quiet paths and peer into the snow-tufted enclosures where lions lounge and camels chew their feed.

The zoo feels quainter in the winter than it does in summer, when loud families crowd the space. No stands dispense snacks here now, and the children's train sits motionless under its station roof. A man off in the distance swings his daughter onto his shoulders before disappearing around a corner. No one else is in sight.

Winter squirrels scuffle through the fresh snow. Geese huddle in a field by an icy pond. The snow monkeys are out in full chattering force, sitting in their hot tub or running up and down the tree trunks in their pen. A herd of deer rests calmly in the sun. Two tigers advance from the back of their yard, pause for a moment, and then amble off into the evergreens.

In the amphibian house itself, a volunteer docent introduces the giant salamanders and endangered Wyoming toads (the zoo is successfully reintroducing these nearly extinct amphibians into the wild). She leads the way into the misty room where a meandering sloth drapes the underside of a branch. Upside down, he blearily peers at visitors.

It's hard not to be charmed by this winter zoo, which includes such other prime seasonal spots as the penguin tank and a huge, humid room housing hummingbirds and exotic butterflies. But now there's another reason to go: One of the campus' newer buildings, the Ford Recreation Center, is hosting the world's largest and most prestigious wildlife photography competition, the 2007 Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition, selected by the British Museum of Natural History. The exhibit made its North American debut at the zoo in mid-December and stays up until April.

The competition's overall winner, which greets you upon entering the main gallery, is a graceful shot of an elephant caught midstride as it sprays water over its hide. Another photograph shows a shark in black and white, swimming through layers of water. In yet another, a vulture feeds on prey at eye level, impressively dominating the composition.

"Photography" doesn't quite describe these 107 images. The pictures aren't printed on film paper; they're transparencies laid over gleaming lights so that every nuance in shade and tone is fiercely displayed in a way more akin to an HDTV screenshot than a traditional print.

The display represents the efforts of 93 photographers working in 78 countries and competing in 16 categories (including youth divisions). The winning shots were chosen from among 32,318 entries. From these, it's difficult to select a favorite. The photos are mesmerizing. Brilliant landscapes compete with abstract images, or action shots of animals fighting and eating each other in their natural environments.

Despite a zoo's best intentions, it's difficult to show animals as they're depicted here, in peak moments of drama or tension, because there are limits to the manmade habitat. But the camera lens doesn't face this problem, and this exhibit gives visitors a sense of animals as an interdependent part of nature.

Even though few people appear in the photographs, our impact on the world's ecosystems is undeniable. In one shot that hints at global warming, for example, a polar bear balances precariously on a tiny platform of ice. Though the work mainly focuses on wildlife around the world as it exists right now, many pictures raise questions about the environment's future — and our own.

The Detroit Metro Zoo has hosted the Shell exhibit for the past six years, but it has a longer record of showcasing art, according to Mark Packer, the zoo's curator of education, who heads the zoo's art acquisition fund. He explains that the statues, etchings and other objects displayed in key locations throughout the zoo are intended to enhance the visitor's life, and have been since it first opened in 1928; the zoo was designed to give Detroit's autoworkers a park-like refuge for picnics and weekend leisure time.

To improve visitors' experiences, the zoo has added new elements over the years. Its environmentally friendly children's education program, for example, offers technologically enhanced "immersive learning" classrooms designed to maximize visitors' sensory impressions. In the storytelling room, a faux fire flickers within a ring of padded benches. The recessed ceiling, lit by cool blue lights, mimics an igloo's roof with its oculus, and sets a contemplative listening mood.

In another room children are rattled and "propelled" through a computer-animated odyssey, seeing the world through an animal's eyes, or riding a futuristic log through an elaborate set of flumes.

The zoo's new developments and tactics seem to be attracting more visitors, Packer says, despite budget cuts from the city.

He thinks more visitors will come now, after New Year's, for an enticing winter getaway where it's easy to see something as rare and impressive as a wolverine loping through the snow.

2007 Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition runs through April 27 at the Ford Education Center, Detroit Zoo, 8450 W. 10 Mile Rd., Royal Oak; 248-541-5717.

Cyan James is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]