Mike Nelson's Colorado -- Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Get up close to 150 different species of animals

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - When the Waldo Canyon Fire broke out in Colorado Springs this summer, it made national and international news.

People were concerned about all the landmarks in the Springs, and in particular, they wanted to make sure the animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo were safe.

This zoo, which opened in 1926, is a treasure that has more than 150 different species of animals and has had millions of visitors from all over the world. So off we went, me and 7NEWS Photojournalist Jen Castor, to see how the zoo weathered the smoke and flames.

Our first wild animal encounter; the grizzlies. We arrived at feeding time and Digger the bear seemed to enjoy every morsel of bear chow he was handed carefully through a cage, making a purring sound that lets you know he loves to eat.

At the same time, feeding time is an opportunity for his handler to get a good look at his fur, teeth and massive paws. Digger may be getting treats, but what he and the other animals aren’t getting, is many visitors.

Katie Borremans, spokeswoman for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo says "since the fire started, we were down 2, 3, 4 thousand people per day over last year."

Maiya, 6, and her brother Eric, 4, tell us they are regular visitors to the zoo and like to check on the progress of the animals.

The "regulars" aren’t what zoo officials are worried about. Colorado Springs residents are visiting the zoo the summer, it’s the people from outside the Pikes Peak region who are staying away.

"We had lots of people calling asking if there was smoke, should we come out, are we open. We didn't close at all," Borremans said.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo sits at an elevation of 6,800 feet, so the views overlooking the city of Colorado Springs are impressive. In fact, you can see the burn area from the zoo, but the flames and smoke never blew in its direction. During the height of the fire, the zoo did put some smaller animals in cages as a precaution, like some monkeys and birds that are a bit more sensitive to smoke.

But when you're an African elephant and your weight is in the tons, movement takes a little more motivation. The day of our visit, we watched bath time for Jambo, inside the safe confines of the elephant enclosure. Jambo is known for being smart and a bit crabby, so her handler stays safely on the other side of a huge divider while the two communicate using food.

Jambo likes her mix of veggies and bagels and is easily motivated when a bagel comes her way. Like the other animals, bath time and feeding time allow handles to check out ears, eyes, tusks and other parts to make sure the animals stay healthy.

The highlight of our visit were the reticulated giraffes. Their enclosure allows visitors to hand feed the animals, and it doesn’t take any coaxing. In fact, if they see you with lettuce in hand, they come to you, sticking out their long black tongues hoping you will gently hold out a piece of lettuce, or if they are lucky, a cracker or two.

And through all the worry about the welfare of the animals during the Waldo Canyon Fire, a new baby boy was born at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Born July 10, the so far unnamed giraffe came into the world at 5 foot 4 inches tall and 148 pounds.

He’s busy finding his place among the 21 giraffes/ That’s more reticulated giraffes than at any other zoo in the world.

By the time he grows up, he should reach 15 to 18 feet tall, but don’t wait, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo officials say just seeing the baby is worth the price of admission, and Jen and I couldn’t agree more.


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