Kudus—I mean kudos—to the landscapers and horticulturists at the El Paso Zoo. Their careful plantings, which manage to block sun but not wind, helped make a midsummer visit almost cool. Still, baking visitors gratefully entered the indoor displays: In the nocturnal exhibit, my friend Isela gazed for a long time at a winsome wild cat called a banded palm civet, and when I commented, "You must really like that little kitty," she confessed, "Not really—I'm standing right under the air-conditioning vent."Founded in 1941, this doughty little zoo has been an entertainment fixture for generations of locals. Isela, a lifelong resident of El Paso, remembers how, when it was smaller, the lions' roar would carry for miles through the clear desert air. The lions are gone now, but there are many other big predators, including a pair of black jaguars we watched for several minutes (he was feeling amorous; she wasn't in the mood). A particular favorite is fifty-year-old Mona the elephant; she's practically the zoo's Queen Mum and rates her own birthday parties every fall, complete with cards and a special watermelon cake (this month they're scheduled for October 7 and 8 at 9:30 a.m.). We also fell for the orangutan matriarch, who has developed her own beat-the-heat method: She wets an old burlap bag in her pool, then covers her face and torso with it while stretching out for a nap in the sun.
Although the zoo's habitats are old and somewhat "cage-esque," as my thirteen-year-old son, Parker, put it, they are attractive and spacious, and the animals, judging by their level of midday activity, have adjusted to El Paso's climate. The bears and even the wolves (usually shy) were romping around, and the tigers—which occupy a new habitat that resembles the ruins of a jungle temple—thrilled watchers by emerging from the shadows to wade regally in their pool ("They're grrrrrrrreat!" noted Philip, my fifteen-year-old). But the most popular creature when we visited was the 180-pound Komodo dragon, a temporary residentwho has since moved on; its fat stomach oozing across the concrete, it eyed the dinner-size kids with unblinking interest. They in turn oohed and aahed over a sign noting that its saliva contains some twenty distinct toxic bacteria, four of which have no known antidote. (Cool!) 4001 E. Paisano, El Paso (note: The Washington Street back entrance is closed); 915-544-1928. Open weekdays 9:30 to 4 (8 to 4 on summer Fridays). Weekend hours vary seasonally; call for schedule. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. General admission $4, senior citizens $3, children 3 to 12 $2, under 3 free. Wheelchair accessible.