Flamingo and gibbon days of summer

Sacramento’s nightlife has its share of animals behind bars. So does its zoo. Like most, they can do without the heat. A couple of weekends ago, with temperatures lingering around 105 degrees and an eerie midsummer silence hanging over them, the animals had the zoo’s still, sauna-like atmosphere pretty much to themselves. Pink flamingoes with feathers like ’80s glam hairdos preened busily in the shallow water of the pond known as Lake Maracaibo. The majestic lion, sprawled on his back in the shade and proudly exposing himself, didn’t seem to move or to want to. The unbelievably bizarre anteater was more animated, roving around his fenced-in area licking up ants through his snout. The anteater sucks down 20 pounds of insects a day in the wild; in captivity, it relies on insect smoothies, apparently the culinary duty of some unfortunate zoo employee.

More entertainingly, the white-handed gibbons leapt, swung and played together in their gymnasium-like cage, filled with tree branches and literal monkey bars. Fluidly, the gibbons navigated the length and height of their area in zigzags of death-defying leaps, the nimble precision of their furred hands flashing white with each reach for the next perch. The thrill of this spectacle was tempered with an awareness that even a gym-cage is still a cage and that the gibbons are threatened by deforestation and hunting in their South Asian natural habitat.

A toothless man with an American flag on his hat sat down next to his daughter and removed the hat from his sweating bald head. His daughter sipped a Coke. The Education Amphitheater was about half-filled with families.

“How’s everyone doin’ today?” said one of a pair of perky zoo staffers. “Glad to see everyone has so much energy on such a hot day!” The crowd replied with a weak collective moan.

“Now, a lot of people, when they come to the zoo, they want to see the lions and the zebras,” the staffer continued. “And that’s fine; that’s fun, too. But today we’re going to take a look at some of the wildlife right near home.”

The audience was introduced to an American kestrel named Herbie, a bird of prey whose incredible eyesight can distinguish the dotted i in a page of print from the distance of a football field. A wounded foot had left Herbie unfit to live in the wild, so here he was, grounded. The staffers went on to explain the zoo’s role as a refuge for endangered animals and its Species Survival Plan, a complicated breeding strategy focusing on the eventual release of many animals back into the wild. At the end of the presentation, kids gathered around the stage to see an endangered desert tortoise, which also wasn’t going anywhere. Then they filed back out into the sweltering, lonely encampment of other exotic animals enclosed by metal and mesh.