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100+ Things: The Buffalo Zoo gleams in winter

Why go to the Buffalo Zoo this time of year? Two reasons.

First, admission is just $5, across the board, through February. And parking is free.

Second, you will see the winter differently.

The tropical animals will be inside, and you may share in their tropical comfort. The animals who are outside are there because they want to be. Because they love it.

Luna the polar bear, in particular, never looked happier.

To think our famously cute cub is now 500 pounds. And the male polar bear brought in to keep her company weighs twice that amount. Sakari, the male, was pacing restlessly in a separate enclosure. It is polar bear mating season, we learned, and Luna is on his mind.

Oblivious to his yearning, Luna was having a grand time. She played with a ball. Then she dove into her pool, delighting a small crowd by swimming right up to the window. A smiling sopping polar bear, inches from our faces! She planted a huge paw against the glass.

Christian Dobosiewicz, the zoo's communications manager, laughed affectionately.

"She's a big ham," he said.

Luna swims by again for a visit with Ethan Blackwell, 2, left, of Cheektowaga and his sister Abigale, 5. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

At the zoo in winter, the crowds aren't there, and you don't have to jockey to get a good view. You can get up close to the glass and see Luna. And you are practically guaranteed a front-row view when the sea lions are fed.

The giant anteater has a shockingly long tongue. In fact, it has the longest of any animal, extending two feet out of its body. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"Talk," the keeper tells him. The animal roared, a loud and haunting sound.

"Good boy! Good boy!" He got a silvery fish, glinting in the winter sunshine.

Sea lions, like polar bears, are used to the chill. A lot of animals are. It reminds a Western New Yorker that we are used to it, too.

And should you find yourself shivering, you can always head for the Rainforest.

Technically called Rainforest Falls, this tropical exhibit is modeled after Angel Falls in South America. Wisely, we visited in the early afternoon. That is when things are at their most torpid.

[Related: Buffalo Zoo's rainforest exhibit in Kunz Goldman's Tropical Staycation]

The birds were hidden in the treetops. One macaw did call out "Hello." But it was definitely nap time. The turtles dozed. Rosie, the big, adorable capybara, was snoozing. A giant anteater stuck out his tongue, a fascinating sight.

Most languid of all were the caiman alligators, lying motionless in the water with their snouts on the surface. Can you find all six caimans? It's like solving a hidden pictures puzzle.

When the keeper feeds the caimans, the creatures come to sluggish life. The caimans aren't as hungry as they are in the summer, and they eat their dead mice at a leisurely pace. The tail is the last thing to go down. Yuck!

A.J., one of the four females among the five total giraffes. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Luckily, nobody was too put off by that sight. Summer is amateur time at the zoo. Winter is for insiders.

Most folks we met had memberships, and visit frequently. They know the addax from the gembok, the sake monkey from the capuchin monkey. They follow the animals over weeks and months.

Which can be tremendously entertaining. The animals have names and families. In the giraffe house, we lingered to figure out the giraffe family tree. That was big daddy Moke on the left. He has three offspring by two mamas, Agnes and A.J.

One patron had a gorilla habitat habit.

"Amari's getting bigger," she remarked to a keeper, pointing to one of the apes.

Family life goes on at the zoo in its own pace, and on a quiet winter day, you become part of that intimate scene.

We watched, enthralled, as Nya, a 4-year-old gorilla, picked up a seat and a bunch of grass, and carried them to a corner where she could sit and have lunch. Little Kayin played with his toys. Koga, the gorilla patriarch, sat eating grass and eyeing visitors balefully. The intimidating eye contact, we learned, is his way of protecting the clan.

As you take in the scene, your normal troubles fade away.

"You can spend half an hour, or a whole day at the zoo," Dobosiewicz said. "We get single people, families, older people, people on dates. It's for everyone."

Marta Hiczewski of West Falls, enjoying the antics of lovely Luna, echoed his sentiment. She was marveling at the polar bear with her daughter, Tica Gorino, and little Charlie Gorino, 18 months old.

"It's a treat for the little ones," she said. "For all of us."

Tyson Wyche, 2, of Lockport is fascinated by the gorillas. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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