I’m sure you’ve loved the words “Let’s Go To the Zoo” ever since you were small. As children, it was a joy and a wonder to see animals, birds, and other creatures “up close” that we’d only read about in story books or seen on television or in the movies. Even today, most of us enjoy a trip to our local zoo.
The first zoos, or menageries, were private collections created for rulers and aristocrats, but in the 1800s zoos for the public, like the London Zoo, began to be established. In the United States the first zoo was the Central Park Zoo, opened in 1864, followed by the Philadelphia Zoo in 1874 and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in 1889.
Early zoos, especially small ones, were not always kind to the animals that inhabited them, but in the early 1900s zoos began to be built with more natural habitats for the animals, and over time public education and protective laws helped all zoos to become more humane. Some species of animals might have become extinct without zoos. Also, specialists in many fields have learned a lot about animals through studying and working with them in zoo environments. Many of our early zoos in America were actually established to care for abandoned pets, to tend to orphaned wildlife, or to prevent animal species from going extinct.
Today there are about 470 zoological facilities in America, licensed by the US Department of Agriculture. Most of us visit the zoo closest to our home, but we might also visit a zoo or aquarium in another town while on vacation. For example, when visiting our son and daughter in New Orleans, Louisiana, in past, we loved going to the city’s beautiful Audubon Zoo. Almost every large American city has a zoo. Some are huge like the Bronx Zoo in New York and others are small, like the zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio. Many zoos have unique attractions, like theme parks or aquariums within them, playgrounds, lakes with paddleboats, petting zoos, and myriad opportunities for hands-on learning. Omaha Nebraska’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is often listed as one of the most fun zoos in America to visit, covering 170-acres with over 17,000 animals across 962 species.
The majority of zoos charge admission, from $10 to $25, and even $50, for adults, less for seniors and children. A number of zoos are also free to the public like the Cape May Zoo in New Jersey, the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Zoo in DC.
Zoos are expensive to maintain so any fees you pay help to keep the zoo you visit alive, vibrant, and a safe place for the animals. If you do a little searching, you can often tap into “free” admission opportunities or discount days to your local zoo. J.L. and I took advantage of a “free visit” opportunity here in Knoxville where we live, to go to our zoo last week, so I could write my September blog post about it.
Every zoo has its own unique history. Here in Knoxville, In the early 1900s, a four-acre children’s park was established on a hillside at Chilhowee Park, one of the city’s earliest public parks. The little Birthday Park had a playground, wading pool and a shelter. There was talk of starting a zoo at that time, but nothing came of the idea. In 1946, the children’s park on the hillside closed but in 1948 an initiative to relaunch the park as a zoo began in earnest, and in 1951 the Knoxville Municipal Zoo opened. The park started small, with an alligator its major attraction. Later the Ringling circus donated an elephant named Old Diamond to the zoo, who kept tearing up his enclosures. Then Guy Smith, a television executive, and his wife Patty bought a lion cub for the zoo, Dr. Bill Patterson helped to found the Appalachian Zoological Society as a further help, and, finally, the beginnings of a much larger zoo kicked off in 1971. I still remember some of the “Save Old Diamond” campaigns that helped to bring in funding and support in that era. Later, as the zoo grew, Old Diamond was successfully mated to two younger female elephants, making the Knoxville Zoo the first to successfully breed an African elephant in captivity. I visited the zoo in its early years as a child and then later with my children, and with school and scout groups, as the zoo grew.
Today the zoo has grown to cover 53 acres and is home to about 1,200 animals. The Knoxville Zoo, although small, has been listed among the 10 best zoo exhibits by USA Today. The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; it works with several programs to save animals from extinction and participates in efforts to return animals, like the red wolf, to the wild. In addition, the Knoxville Zoo is the Red Panda Capital of the world because more red pandas have been born at the Knoxville Zoo than anywhere else in the world. As the zoo brochure states: “By visiting Zoo Knoxville, you are supporting the mission to save wildlife and wild places.”
The Knoxville Zoo is spread out over a pleasant campus, with easy walkways, beautiful landscaping, rest benches, water fountains, small cafes and restaurants, and many family-friendly activities. During the year, the zoo also offers special events, like at Halloween and Christmas and hosts special “after hours” events.
To walk every pathway from the zoo’s entrance plaza and back is about two miles… but I’d add to that mileage, as you’re often walking in and out of the same trails more than once to backtrack to an exhibit you missed. There is also a Nature Trail at the zoo, which can add extra time if you walk it. In general, a visit to the Knoxville Zoo, to see everything and not be rushed, takes about two to three hours – a pleasant morning or afternoon of fun.
If you have children with you, add more time to the visit. There are several play areas the kids may want to spend extra time to enjoy. There is a Zoo-Choo Train they can ride and a Safari Splash area they can enjoy in the summer—where they’ll get a thorough soaking, so you might want to bring extra clothes for this! There is also a large Kids Cove area with a playground, slides, a “zoo animals carousel,” and a petting zoo.
Following our “zoo map”, we started our adventure winding west from the entrance, to the Black Bear Falls exhibit. This multi-level exhibit covers three-fourths of an acre. Inside is a natural bear habitat that holds four to five bears with three pools, a bear cave, a grassy terrain, trees, climbing logs, and three viewing areas for the public. This is a pretty exhibit and the bears are very active and play – especially in the early mornings – with growls and bear-talk, a treat for zoo visitors to enjoy.
We next passed Grasslands Africa on the right with the zoo’s big elephants, stopping to also check out the rhinoceros, hornbills and foxes on the left. Next was the Giraffe Encounter exhibit with lovely, long-necked giraffes taking a stroll around their habitat and next to it the Zebra area. The landscaping throughout the zoo was much prettier than I remembered … with big spires of pampas grass, ponds and rock formations, and colorful flowers in tubs.
Following the zoo walkway continuing west brought us to see the Baboons and then the Lions. You can see from the lion photo below … that, like most cats, the lions had nap-time down to a T. Walking back, we cut by the Safari Smokehouse, one of the zoo’s cafes, with cute outdoor tables and fabulous landscaping, to walk up a hillside trail to see the red wolves and then to check out the African Painted dogs. On a pavilion on the walkway to the red wolves is a nice area with picnic tables for those who want to bring their own lunches to enjoy at the zoo – or to stop and rest.
We next followed a winding walkway through tall bamboo and a forested area to the zoo’s Gorilla Valley and Chimpanzee Ridge. J.L. and I were both impressed with the creative landscaping at every point and with the cleanliness of the zoo. It’s also a great place to get in a good walk in at a beautiful place while seeing all the animals.
Several of the gorillas at Gorilla Valley were playing and putting on a show for the kids watching, while this guy in the picture at right seemed to be pensively watching. Nearby on Chimpanzee Ridge, the chimps have a wonderful play area with all sorts of toys and many trees to climb. All the chimps were napping at our visit … but I’ve always enjoyed watching them at other zoo visits. I admit I missed seeing the little brown monkeys I remember from visits at the zoo with my kids.
We’d been exploring the West Zoo and now walked back toward the entrance to head over to enjoy highlights in the East Zoo. Along the way we passed a play zone adventure area for kids, a lovely pond with tortoises and waterlilies, and the snakes and reptiles houses which we skipped going through. The Knoxville Zoo does have one of the top reptile collections in the country and the zoo just opened its new Clayton Family Amphibian and Reptile area in 2021 … so if you like reptiles and amphibians be sure to check this new exhibit building out! We did stop, though, to watch the Otters swim and play before passing by the Red Panda area.
Next we went to see the Gibbons in the new Gibbons Trail Enclosure, and. we both really enjoyed that exhibit. One of the zoo workers was there, who told us all about the gibbons. Gibbons are gymnasts and entertaining to watch at play. They leaped and jumped through the tree branches and over the play equipment, seeming to love putting on a show for all the zoo visitors. Gibbons are one of only a few species of primates that mate for life and you might get to see Georgie and Malay grooming each other affectionately. Gibbons are very vocal, too.
Before leaving the Gibbons area be sure to also see the wonderful Williams Family Tree House. A fun wooden swinging bridge leads across to it … and from the high tree house you can catch views across the zoo grounds and Chilhowee Park. Beyond the Tree House the walkway loops around to the Kids Cove Play area where you’ll find play structures, a petting zoo, the pretty carousel, and beaver and tortoise exhibits.
From the Kids’ Cove area, we headed back toward the entrance, stopping at the Tiger Temple in the 2-acre Asian Trek area. Malayan Tigers are critically endangered species, and the Knoxville zoo has two Malayan Tigers named Basdhir and Arya. There are also White-Naped Cranes playing in the ponds and forest area, and in the indoor pavilion colorful interactive exhibits teaching more about the tigers. When the tigers are feeling playful you may get to see them swim in the waterfall and ponds. The Knoxville Zoo once had a white tiger,too, Kaliyani, who died of old age in 2018. He looked much like the Audubon white tiger -whose picture I posted earlier – and I remember him well from earlier zoo visits.
Tired from our walk on a warm August day, we stopped to enjoy the 20-foot Bear Falls again before leaving but were glad then to head back to our car. It had been many years since J.L. and I last visited the zoo and we really enjoyed our adventure seeing it all again. If you haven’t visited a zoo before … find one near your home to explore!
See you again in October … and enjoy the last days of summer.
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act