I was out in Germany on Saturday to see the Duisburg Zoo, a smaller park with some notable exhibits. What I found (besides legions of Dutch holiday traffickers clogging the A12) was a transitional park with one foot in the zoological past and one in the conservation future. It's definitely got things you won't see anywhere else, and which probably won't be there too much longer.
On the Wild side, the park has some marvelous storybook examples of large African animals: the lion, in particular, has a beautiful mane and presence, and the gorilla is appropriately fierce and territorial. The zoo is making a change from older-style cages and pits to more natural and spacious settings, but while it happens, you can get amazingly close to the monkeys, ostriches, and reindeer.
On the Wet side, the zoo has one of the few remaining Amazon fresh-water dolphins. It's a lovely specimen, white and graceful in a large blue tank. It is an older animal, scarred and bent, but still curious and quietly active. I can't imagine that the zoo could get another when this one passes on, and it's really worth a look. The zoo also has a large Dolphinarium, an old-style dolphin circus with animals doing tricks and splashing water. I'm ambivalent about the show: on the one hand, it certainly engages the children and families who crowd the theater, and it may be the thing that hooks them to care about these animals. But, at the same time, I'm uncomfortable with making the animals do tricks on command just to make people laugh.
On the Weird side, the hyena dog cage, inexplicably, had a metal zebra suspended on wires about seven feet above the exhibit. At feeding time, the keepers hang big slabs of raw meat on the zebra and run it up and down the pen, with the hyenas in full, leaping pursuit. Sometimes they catch it and hang off the zebra for a bit: other times a slab of meat falls off into the snapping hoard. They make strange twittering sounds as they fight over the bits and drag it off to corners of the cage. Horribly fascinating.