National Backward Day was Jan. 31. This day is all about doing things backward. Wearing a shirt with the tag in the front, walking backward, and eating dessert first are all ways that you can celebrate the day. Reading about the day prompted me to think about what a true Backward Day would look like at the zoo. Would the rhinos ignore their instincts and charge one another rear end to rear end? Would the flamingos turn green? Would the Karakul sheep call out “aaab, aaab”?

I imagined the giraffes with short legs and necks trying to reach their browse and the siamangs using their long arms to brachiate or swing from one spot to another backwards, looking over their shoulders. The pygmy slow loris turned into a giant speedy loris, the leopards lost their spots, the kookaburra cried instead of laughed and the lions would eat only salads. While it was amusing to think of this backward zoo, it became easier than ever to see why animals look or behave the way they do, no matter how unique.

Adaptations are physical or behavioral characteristics of an animal that help it survive. Giraffes, for example, are known for their long necks and tongues; these adaptations allow for this large herbivore to reach leaves on top of trees that other animals cannot get to easily. Their main diet in the wild is the thorny browse of the acacia tree. Their necks reach into the tree, and their long tongues easily maneuver around a branch to strip it from the tree with little concern for the thorns. Without these adaptations, giraffes would not survive.

Animals have adapted to their habitats. On Backward Day, the giraffe would be native to the Arctic and spend its day hunting prey, while the polar bear roamed the savannah and munched on leaves. We know that this backward behavior doesn’t work with animals in the wild, and we certainly know it doesn’t work at the zoo either. The design of every habitat at the zoo is created with the resident animal’s adaptations in mind, as well as their general daily care, including their diets, enrichment and veterinary care.

When you visit the zoo, you may wonder why an animal’s habitat looks a certain way. You may wonder why there are certain items placed around the yard; you may not understand a specific behavior, or why the animal may not be visible. Each answer comes down to what is best suited for the particular animal. The giraffes have special puzzle feeders around their yard so they can use their tongues just as they would on the acacia tree. An animal pacing may seem like an odd behavior, but you may not see the keeper behind the scenes preparing a training session with rewards that the animal is eager to receive. Perhaps on your last visit you weren’t able to see your favorite animal; it may be because they were hiding out of view or in their shelter.

If you’d like to learn more about the habitats that are created for animals from around the world here at Lee Richardson Zoo, and at other AZA facilities, consider attending the 2018 Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo Annual Banquet held at 1 p.m. Feb. 11. Doors will open at 12:30 p.m., and appetizers will be enjoyed as guests find their seats. There will be a review of highlights from 2017, and the banquet will end with a talk by Craig Rhodes, vice president of GLMV Architecture, and lead of their Zoos and Aquariums Studio. Mr. Rhodes has worked on many projects at many zoos around the country, and has helped to create conceptual designs for the new flamingo and primate habitat projects in Lee Richardson Zoo’s future. Tickets are $20 for members of Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo and $30 for non-members, and reservations must be paid in advance by 5 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, call the Friends office at (620) 276-6243 or visit their website at

Jan. 31 may be Backward Day, but Feb. 11 will be all about moving forward at the zoo. We hope to see you there!

Emily Sexson is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.