Seeing a wild animal in its natural environment can be one of life's great awe-inspiring moments, but going on safari, diving in the tropics or spending some time in the Antarctic just isn't practicable for most of us. So what's the alternative? Some might say that seeing animals in zoos is less than ideal, others that some of them serve two valid purposes: they're educational and they are responsible for some species-saving breeding programmes. Wildlife parks go one better than zoos, giving animals more space to roam, though not exactly freely.
This entry isn't about whether it's right or wrong to keep animals in captivity, but rather about those great zoos and wildlife parks that have made an impression on you.
Dublin Zoo, Ireland
Situated in Dublin's Phoenix Park, the zoo is one of the most beautiful in the world. It is lucky enough to feature two enormous lakes. The planting of shrubs, trees and flowers makes this a very pleasant place. The zoo has recently been expanded to nearly twice its former size, giving much more room for the animals. Of course, this also means that a lot of the time, the animals are much further from the people, making it harder to see them.
Eating facilities have always been poor in Dublin Zoo. At the time of writing, a complete refurbishment of the restaurant is taking place, so it is closed. Although there are alternative places to get food, you are well advised to bring a packed lunch.
The zoo is being reorganised into the following areas: World of Cats, Fringes of the Arctic, African Plains, City Farm, Pets Corner, South American House and East African Reptiles. Although there are some animals which don't quite fit in with this scheme (Californian Sea Lions are in the middle of the Arctic exhibition), gradually over time these discrepancies will be sorted out.
Dublin was famous in the past for breeding lions. Nowadays, it is probably the Golden Lion Tamarins that are the zoo's greatest success story.
I went to see the baby hippo yesterday but it had to be moved away from the public because the mother was getting stressed. The male gorilla was being very frisky however, so there may soon be an addition in that enclosure.
Fota Wildlife Park, Co Cork, Ireland
The park is situated a little way outside Cobh, a nice if rather touristy port village. As a wildlife park, the animals aren't kept in cages but housed in something approaching their natural habitat (well, giraffes don't usually live in windy fields in the northern hemisphere, but they do their best). The park has a wide range of animals: as well as the aforementioned giraffes, there are cheetahs, capybaras, eagles, grey squirrels, deer, ring-tailed lemurs, scimitar-horned oryxes, Grant's gazelles, buffalo, emus, penguins, wallabies, uncountable species of birds, a couple of monkey islands and a veritable arkful of other species.
Many of the animals roam free around the park and bother you while you're having your lunch - lemurs are particularly persistent, while emus have been known to take an interest in the guest's property, especially cameras. One fun game for the young 'uns: tell them that if they stick their fingers in between the links of the cheetah fence, a cheetah will be able to be at the fence and bite the fingers off before the child can pull them out. Watch their little eyes light up with fascinated horror!
The park also has a café, the inevitable gift-shop, a small fun-park and a little train that does a circuit of the area. One caveat; if you park your car in the carpark beneath the trees, be prepared to find it with an exciting new colour scheme (consisting of white streaks) upon you return.
Attached to the wildlife park is an arboretum which is well worth a visit of itself; it's beautifully laid out, containing trees and plants from all over the world including some truly massive redwoods. One of the great things about the park is the ability of the non-threatening animals to go pretty much where they like; you may be walking down a little path when a wallaby hops out in front of you, although you're more likely to find them sunbathing outside the café. On several occasions monkeys and lemurs have actually escaped from Alcatraz and pestered the local farmers before being taken down in a hail of tranquilizer darts. Altogether, a class act, a great family day out and a rather interesting place to live next to.
Jersey Zoo, Channel Islands
Jersey Zoo was set up by Gerald Durrell, the animal collector and writer, and it is a wonderful zoo for animals, but not so good for people coming to see them. This is because of the philosophy behind the zoo. It is not a showcase of animals, captured for our amusement or education. It is an organisation dedicated to helping endangered species to survive. The zoo captures small numbers of endangered animals, breeds them in ideal conditions and then returns them to the wild. This is done in a very controlled way so that the animals will have a very good chance of survival.
This philosophy is evident throughout the zoo. Many enclosures are empty because the animals have just been moved to the wild. Some enclosures have no fences at the boundary, so that the small animals in them are free to leave if they want. Of course, they are still limited by the fence around the whole zoo. This ensures they will get used to a limited form of freedom before being thrown in at the deep end. Most of the enclosures are very large and the animals are very far from the public, being completely hidden in many cases.
The zoo is for the benefit of the animals, not the human visitors. They would allow no visitors at all if they could afford it. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating place to visit. Of particular note are the five Aye-Ayes, a type of nocturnal lemur which is so endangered that there are probably more in Jersey Zoo than in the rest of the world put together. Also watch out for the large families of great apes, both gorillas and Sumatran orangutans.
Edinburgh Zoo - Scotland
This is well worth a visit if you're in the area. On arrival, it may not look like much - the entrance is situated on a main road near the centre of Edinburgh, but once you get inside it's huge. It's built onto a hill, so climbing to the top to see all the exhibits can be quite tiring, but the view when you get there more than makes up for it. There's also a hilltop safari bus, which will take you to the top if you don't feel like walking.
They make an effort to try and recreate 'natural' environments for the animals. OK, so they'll never be perfect - the polar bears in particular seem to have quite a small enclosure, but at least they try. In fact, every time you go they seem to be doing some sort of work to upgrade or renovate one of the enclosures.
They have a policy of breeding programmes for various species, some rare and some not so rare (mostly in order to gain experience for breeding the rarer ones). One of the most famous is probably the penguins. They breed several varieties of penguin - king, emperor, rockhopper and Macaroni. There's a massive penguin enclosure, where you can watch them either on land, or swimming beneath the surface. There's also a penguin parade most days where the penguins are allowed out of the enclosure and go for a walk (under the strict supervision of the keepers, obviously). It's great fun to watch, although it's voluntary, so if you turn up on a day when no penguins fancy a stroll, then no parade.
They have most of the animals that you would expect at a zoo - big cats, polar bears, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, zebras, etc. There's also a lot of smaller creatures - meercats, copybaras, deer, water birds, along with nice reptile and monkey houses. The only 'traditional' thing they're missing is an elephant, because they admit they don't have the space or resources to deal with it - a very responsible attitude.
Wimpole Hall Home Farm
Wimpole Hall Home Farm is a great place to take kids - it is a working farm in part so not strictly speaking a wildlife park or zoo. But there are sheep all over the place and horse drawn carriages and a petting zoo, etc.
Metro Toronto Zoo, Ontario, Canada
The Metro Toronto Zoo is quite a good one. It's absolutely huge - you'll find it difficult to walk more than a quarter of it in a day. There are a variety of animals, and generally speaking the enclosures are quite large and contain some items of interest to the animals inside. The primate habitats have particularly improved over the last couple of decades, and they are always working on expanding the habitats, particularly for the larger mammals. It's designed to be educational and humane and doesn't have the 'theme park' atmosphere that so many museums, zoos and galleries seem to be adopting nowadays.
Some of the animals which particularly stand out: elephants, polar bears, white Siberian tigers, gibbons, gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, naked mole rats, flamingoes, those antelope with the pronged horns, yaks, miniature tamarins and golden tamarins.
San Diego, California, USA
San Diego Zoo, or calling it by it's official name 'The World Famous San Diego Zoo' is really one of the best in the world. It's enclosures are large (apart from some big cats) and the animals are well-looked after. The panda breeding programme is a success, with the newest baby panda just about to leave to go to China. There are guided bus tours which are great. A must-see is the gorilla and orangutan enclosures, where you can get very close up (through reinforced glass!) and actually interact with them.
San Diego Wild Animal Park (a part of the zoo) is just north of the city near Escondido. It aims to simulate an African wilderness, something it pulls off with breathtaking beauty. The place is huge and a commentated train-ride encircles the whole park where you can get a good view of all the animals. The ride takes over 45 minutes! They keep the tigers and the lions separate from the other animals rather boringly.
The Californian Condor breeding programme at the wild animal park is very successful and world famous. They feed the condor chicks with condor-shaped gloves on, so that they don't get used to humans.
Entry to get into the zoo/park is about $40, which is a little expensive (but well worth it for a whole day's fun). A year-long membership of the San Diego Zoological Society is only a little bit more. Get a membership and you can then go to the zoo and the park as many times as you want! Also you get free tickets for other people as part of the deal.
Oh, and avoid SeaWorld. The killer whale and dolphins (dolphin petting zoo!) are fun, but apart from that, it is just a theme park nowadays, one with no rides. Save your money (and time, the traffic and parking is horrendous) and go to the zoo.
Some More American Zoos
Tyler, Texas - This zoo is just right the right size. What's the point of going to a zoo, if you don't have time to really watch the animals? A zoo isn't an amusement park where you run from attraction to attraction trying to shove it all in, ticking off on your map which animals you have seen and trying to figure out which route will allow you to see them most efficiently. Tyler's zoo seems to have found what each animal wants, while positioning the viewing areas for the visitors in such a way that you really do get to see a lot of different behaviour. The animals look happy and as a bonus, the zoo is free. Some animal-loving wealthy person way back when set up the trust for the zoo with the stipulation that admission never be charged. There are donation boxes scattered around, but admission is free.
Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Arizona - They have large Galapagos Island type turtles. As if that isn't enough, it is a small, inexpensive zoo. Their animals seem to produce lots of young, so there are always various animal children to watch. If the rhinos are inclined to hang out near the rail, you can touch their backs. If the giraffes are so inclined, you can feed them by hand. This zoo is actually so small that you can eat lunch before you go, and then spend a few happy hours there, having time to see all of the animals.
Sonoran Desert Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Arizona - Not exactly a zoo, but they have a large number of live exhibits. The animals are all Sonoran Desert animals, so they are not animals you would see in most zoos. Definitely a winter season activity, unless you like 115°F weather. Because the Sonoran Desert extends into Mexico, they have a really nice cat habitat featuring the small cats from that area.
This is one place where the emphasis is definitely on education. The docents are wonderful. The indoor museum exhibits are fascinating, especially if you are interested in caves, minerals, and geology in general. Admission is about $15 during the winter, and $12 during the summer.
Louisville Zoo, Louisville, Kentucky - A pretty decent zoo that can be seen in one day without hurrying too much. It's a little bit larger than most and the habitats are decent too. There's nothing really spectacular about this zoo.
Audobon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana - This one is a particular Researcher favourite:
One zoo I visited which really stood out compared with my local zoo in Philadelphia (which is a rather good zoo to begin with) was the Audobon Zoo in New Orleans, LA.
I never saw a happier bunch of animals than the orangutans there! They were playing, moving, getting laughs from the crowd... I almost had the sense that they knew they were an attraction. I'd love to take them out and have a few beers with them sometime. Overall, Audobon Zoo is very clean and the animals have plenty of space to move about.
Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati, Ohio - The following Researcher experience dates a few years, but serves as a warning - it's not just in the East where zoos are bad.
To be fair, I don't think I've been there in the last eight or so years. I've heard that it has undergone several major renovations since then. I'll probably be taking the kids to see it later this summer, and maybe I'll be amazed by the changes. But, until that happens, I have to admit that this is my all-time least favorite zoo. We visited it once every year or two when I was a kid, and I hated it each time. It's dirty. The habitats were miserable and the animals looked miserable to be in them. There was rarely any behavior of any kind to watch because the animals didn't seem to have any interest in anything but sleeping between meals. Even the monkeys didn't play. I remember that the stench during the summer was nearly unbearable. The elephants had only a hard packed dirt stockade type of area to go outside in, with a slimy concrete pool. If it was too hot, they went into the elephant house. The building itself is beautiful to look at from the outside, but you had to take a big breath before you went in, and try to make it out the other side without gasping. Not exactly inducive for stopping to watch the animals. I've heard that this has changed. We'll see.
Now, this part is really unfair, because Cincinnati can't help the fact that it is hilly, but this zoo requires some exertion. Many of the paths were steep, and to get from exhibit to exhibit, you were nearly always going up or down. Add a few strollers, or short legged toddler type people, and you've got one miserable day.
Givskud Løvepark (Lion park) is the best place in Denmark to watch wildlife. It is not a traditional Zoo - it is basically a large area of farmland in the middle of Jylland (Jutland in English) which has been fenced in. Here lions, zebras, giraffes and so on live freely - the area is divided a little to avoid bloodshed. You can drive through the area in your own car or take the bus. You get a good view on the bus and the driver will help you to notice everything that is going on. In addition, there is a smaller section designed like a traditional zoo.
The Zoo in København (Copenhagen) is big. It is old, but it has been expanded over the years and small pens have been rebuilt and expanded so the general standard today is good. They have all the traditional animals and in addition they have the reptile house, the butterfly house (an amazing place) and animals like the tapir. They have quite a lot of birds. Generally, you can spend most of the day there without having seen everything. It is, however, quite expensive to get in. To get there, you can take a bus from central Copenhagen.
Unfortunately, many Chinese zoos should be avoided, such as the zoo in Chengdu, Sichuan. The animals there are kept within extremely cramped spaces, and the entire zoo is extraordinarily dirty. All of the animals look sad and lonely.
The one in Guangzhou (Canton) would be lovely - if they didn't have any animals in it. It's a lovely parkland, but the only animals that appeared to be having any fun at all were the wildfowl on the lake and a small wild snake we saw wriggling along a path - an escapee from the snake restaurant perhaps? The rest were in small concrete enclosures with concrete floors - including a cheetah.
Ordinarily we wouldn't have considered visiting a zoo, but we were on an escorted day tour out of Hong Kong, so it wasn't a choice. They were keen to show us their prize Pandas, who, very sensibly, were hiding in the shade of their enclosure trying to escape the sultry heat, so we didn't see much of them.
There was a troupe of monkeys in a relatively open enclosure who looked like they were having a good time with some odd looking constructions of wheels and pipes which was serving as a climbing frame. We felt a little less uncomfortable about it all whilst we were watching their antics.
But the bears. That was really heartbreaking. Their enclosures were pretty big, but were nothing but bare concrete, with ponds of horribly stagnant water covered in scum and floating litter. One of them, poor creature, was slumped in a heap by the wire and I'm still sure to this day that there was a burning cigarette stuck in its fur which it was too miserable to brush off.
When we were filling in our 'evaluation' forms at the end of the trip, the question 'Which place would you have preferred not to visit?' had the answer 'The Zoo' in virtually every case.
Check what the guidebooks say on Chinese zoos carefully if you go out there. Try to find out which ones to visit and which ones to avoid (if you want to visit one at all, that is). If foreign visitors only go to the good ones, then the bad ones might take the hint and clean up their act a bit.
If you're on an escorted trip, tell your National and Local guide how you feel about it if you are taken to a bad zoo - preferably whilst you're there so they can see what you dislike about it. They're always interested in your opinions, and if enough of you comment (and make it clear that very few western visitors would be happy with the zoo), the tour may even drop it from the itinerary next season. Like guides and reps in any country, they want visitors to leave with happy memories of their visit, so anything that conflicts with that purpose is not going to be something they'll want to take visitors to again.
Okay, maybe I'm being a bit naive, but we can try, can't we?
Despite the zoo, I found China to be a marvelous country, with friendly, hospitable people who love to laugh. Just thought I'd make that point!