Visit a Wichita zoo that’s hidden in plain sight
Right in the middle of town — not hidden at all — is a longtime Wichita landmark.
It’s a windy Saturday and a small crowd has gathered in Wichita’s Central Riverside Park.
It’s noon, which means feeding time at the Riverside Zoo – more formally known as the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit at Riverside.
There are people of all ages, but the majority are kids. They’re eager to see their favorite animals in action, which usually happens when there’s a meal involved.
Naturalist Todd Volkmann is explaining the turkey vulture’s habitat to the crowd. The vulture’s name is Chuck — short for “Upchuck” — which according to Volkmann is an appropriately descriptive name.
“So one of the … disgusting things that a turkey vulture does is they will throw up,” Volkmann said. “They can even projectile vomit.
“And if you knew what a turkey vulture eats to begin with, it's really disgusting stuff.”
Definitely gross, but the kids are fascinated. Chuck is getting a treat today — a leftover dead rabbit from the bobcat’s lunch the day before.
Chuck has been at the Riverside Zoo for 27 years. He was injured and can’t be released into the wild.
That’s the case for most of the animals there: They can’t live on their own due to injury or from being around humans too much when they were young.
There are 25 animals at the moment in eight naturalistic cages. In addition to Chuck, there is Rufus the bobcat; Chapa the beaver; Keeper the eagle; plus a mink, turtles, hawks and ducks.
Many become “animal ambassadors” and help the naturalists with programs. Chuck was recently at an event at Mark Arts.
“He has been to hundreds of schools, lots of events, and a lot of people have been introduced to turkey vultures through Chuck,” Volkmann said.
A zoo has existed in Central Riverside Park in some form since 1901. At one time, it housed animals such as lions, bears and alligators.
The larger animals went away in the 1970s after the Sedgwick County Zoo opened.
The Kansas Wildlife Exhibit opened in 1988 and is a partnership between the city and the Great Plains Nature Center. It focuses on displaying animals native to Kansas.
That would include Chuck, who is now digging into his lunch, and another zoo favorite getting ready for a meal.
Pokey the opossum ambles out to the fence followed by naturalist Alicia Oberg, who is holding baskets of food.
Possums “are not picky eaters,” Oberg explains. “In fact, there's only one thing that she has decided she did not like (and) she spit back out.”
That would be radishes. There are none in the mixture of broccoli, peas and carrots that Oberg is feeding to Pokey.
“Possums eat all kinds of things,” Oberg said, other than radishes apparently.
“They're not great hunters. So something like maybe a slug – she does like slugs – or a mouse with three legs and an eye patch and a bad limp, she could probably catch that.”
Pokey, Chuck and the other exhibit stars have done their jobs and the small crowd is enchanted. The naturalists hope the visitors will gain a new appreciation and respect for Kansas wildlife.
“I love that people can come to a park in the city and have a free experience of something that will expose them to something or show them something that is out there in nature that they may not get a chance to see very often,” Volkmann said.
“I've only seen one golden eagle in Kansas ever. I've never seen a live bobcat and a lot of these animals are animals that people are familiar with, but they just don't have a chance to see up close.”
Marketing intern Karlee Cooper contributed videos for this Hidden Kansas segment.