Keep Your Cool
By Sutton Stokes
Summertime, and the living is…hot, especially in Miami. A mere 1,500 miles from the equator, Miami's summer temperatures average in the 80s (by comparison, average summer temperatures in New York City are in the mid-70s), with plenty of July days topping out in the upper 90s. On top of that, humidity is sky-high and even a rainstorm isn't good for much besides more steam.
In other words, it's an ideal climate for hissing cockroaches, Cuban crocodiles and Vietnamese potbellied pigs, to name just a few of the animals on display at the "cageless" Miami-Dade Metrozoo, which opened in its current location in 1981. Built on 250 acres of an abandoned WWII-era naval air station in south Miami and surrounded by native pinelands, Metrozoo is home to a wide variety of animals, just like any other zoo.
Unlike any other zoo (in the continental United States, at least), Metrozoo is also home to more than 900 species of subtropical plants, including several endangered species.
"Since we're subtropical, we can grow a large variety of plant species unique [within] the U.S.," explains Tom Trump, Metrozoo's supervisor of maintenance and horticulture. "We've got a good variety of tropical hardwoods and palms…orchids, bromeliads."
Metrozoo has been developing its plant collection since 1979, and carefully labeled displays and exhibits give visitors the chance to learn as much about orchids as they can learn about sun bears.
Trump feels that the unusual flora is a large part of the zoo's attraction.
"We're green year-round," Trump points out. "You get the northern tourist coming down in winter, and they see leaves on trees and green grass and flowers in bloom. It's kind of unique compared to any other area in the country."
As beautiful as the zoo is, however, there are some drawbacks to being located in a subtropical climate.
"In the summer months, our first-aid staff was getting numerous calls for heat-related problems for visitors," Trump says. "The problem is that what's good for tropical plants can be hard on people. Heat and sun and humidity…that's wonderful for our plants but not necessarily ideal for people walking and visiting the zoo."
Cindy Falcon, who supervises the zoo's first-aid responders, agrees.
"Heat-related issues are one of the most important things we have to deal with; we get lots of children and elderly visitors," says Falcon, naming the two groups that the American Medical Association considers most at risk for heat-related illness.
Metrozoo has taken various measures over the years to offset the effects of the extreme heat, including installing an air-conditioned monorail; offering four-wheel, canopied, pedal-powered carts for rent; and providing guided tours aboard air-conditioned trolleys. But these services didn't do much for visitors who preferred to see the zoo on foot.
In 2002, Trump was thinking about ways to help zoo guests keep their cool without retreating from the zoo's walkways. Using irrigation equipment he ordered from a gardening catalog, he created homemade water-misting stations at various points throughout the zoo. These were simply sprinkler heads plumbed onto the zoo's water-lines with a valve, which meant that the sprinklers were either on or off, whether visitors were using them or not.
"We turned them on mid-morning and turned them off at the end of the day, so we had water running all that time," Trump says. "It did reduce our [visitors'] heat-related problems…but I was never comfortable with the amount of water we were using."
With this excessive water use nagging at Trump's conscience, he was intrigued by the capabilities of a commercial mister he came across in a trade magazine. Made by Most Dependable Fountains, Inc., the Model 535 Misting Station duplicated the best features of Trump's homemade misting station while eliminating the waste with a two-minute timer, much like the push-button sinks in some public restrooms. Trump ordered 15 misters and says he is more than satisfied with the results.
"[The fountains operate] 'on demand' so it reduces our water usage and still provides for amusement and refreshment," he says. "We have school groups and camps with large numbers of kids, and you'll see them playing and congregating and getting soaked in the misters."
Zoo guests notice—and appreciate—the upgrade. Falcon says that customer satisfaction scores, recorded on customer comment cards, have increased by 50 percent since the introduction of the misters. Even Zagat Survey, which recently designated Metrozoo a "Top Rated Attraction in Miami" for those traveling with children, praises the zoo for "a sprinkler system [to] help beat the heat."
Of course, if a mist of cool water isn't refreshing enough for you, you can always see if the koalas, currently on loan from the Australian government, will let you into their enclosed pen.
As per Australian government specifications, it's air-conditioned.
For more information
Miami-Dade Metrozoo: www.metro-dade.com/parks/Parks/metrozoo.asp
Most Dependable Fountains: www.mostdependable.com