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Where the Wild Things Are: The World’s Seven Best Zoos

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If you haven’t been to a zoo in a while, the word may conjure up visions of rusty cages, forlorn elephants shuffling around on beds of straw, and a couple of listless lions yawning and fantasizing about the Serengeti as they mope around a dirt enclosure. This was certainly how I imagined zoos for most of my adult life, since I hadn’t been to one in at least two decades. But when I tagged along with my friend and her three-year-old on a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo, I could never have imagined just how off-base my mental images had been all those years. 

As I strolled down a misty, verdant path, I could make out tigers prowling through the vegetation. I could have sworn I was trekking deep into a rainforest—until a quick detour landed me smack in the middle of the Arctic tundra, where polar bears romped in frigid pools. Every landscape I encountered was so convincing that I left feeling as if I’d explored the entire globe in a mere four hours. With scenes like these, who needs safaris? 

Since that day, I’ve been combing the Internet for information about other great zoos, and while I can’t just jet off to South Africa or Singapore on a moment’s notice to see their zoos’ spectacular offerings in person, a girl can dream, right? Join me on a journey through seven of the world’s most memorable man-made animal habitats. 

1. Bronx Zoo (Bronx, New York)
Opened in 1899, the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States covers 265 acres and houses more than four thousand animals. The zoo packs an impressive array of habitats into its relatively small area, including a replica of an African savanna (where gazelles, giraffes, and wild dogs roam), the 6.5-acre Congo Gorilla Forest, and Tiger Mountain, a re-creation of a Russian woodland complete with a pack of Siberian tigers. In the capable hands of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Bronx Zoo is also noteworthy for its environmentally friendly practices and its commitment to “greening its own backyard”; the zoo’s Web site states: “Through energy-efficient exhibits and office buildings, recycling programs, and other eco-friendly technologies, we strive to set an example for other organizations and individuals in New York City to lighten our output.” 

2. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Orlando, Florida)
More than 1,700 animals representing 250 different species reside at this theme park inside Walt Disney World. Divided into seven areas, including Africa, Asia, and Dinoland, U.S.A., this wild kingdom features animals both real and extinct, in addition to more than twenty attractions. Standouts include the Maharajah Jungle Trek, which treats visitors to views of tigers, bats, exotic birds, and a Komodo dragon among “ancient” Southeast Asian ruins; the Kali River Rapids, where guests raft down the Chakranadi River past jungles, geysers, and waterfalls; and the Dinosaur, a thrill ride that involves chasing one sixty-five-million-year-old dinosaur while escaping the jaws of another.

3. National Zoological Gardens (Pretoria, South Africa)
Founded as the Anglo-Boer War began in 1899, South Africa’s national zoo began on a farm; today, 209 mammal species, 202 bird species, 190 fish species, 4 invertebrate species, 93 reptile species, and 7 amphibian species call it home. The zoo spans eighty-five hectares, includes an aquarium and a reptile park, and has established three conservation-minded institutions that house and breed hundreds of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The zoo’s evening aquarium outings and viewings of nocturnal animals are enticing, but its most innovative draw is its overnight camping adventure: guides escort visitors to a campsite on the zoo grounds, then treat them to a guided tour emphasizing traditional folklore. After spending the night in tents, the lucky campers then spend the whole next day exploring their surroundings. 

4. Singapore Zoo (Mandai, Singapore)
Though it’s been open only since 1973, the Singapore Zoo makes up for its relatively short history by being a leading example of the open-zoo concept: rather than containing its animals within traditional cages, the zoo houses them in beautifully landscaped areas, separated from visitors by concealed dry or wet moats. The effect for the viewers is one of complete immersion in the animals’ various habitats. This zoo’s standout exhibits include Wild Africa, Elephants of Asia, Australian Outback, a white-tiger environment, and a polar bear viewing station, but it’s perhaps best known for its “flagship species,” the orangutan. The largest captive colony in the world lives here in two free-ranging areas in which they can climb and swing to their hearts’ content.

5. Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Vienna, Austria)
The oldest zoo in the world, commonly known as Zoo Vienna, was founded in 1752. Its well-preserved baroque buildings recall its origins as a menagerie that Franz Stephan of Lorraine, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, commissioned an architect friend of his to build at his summer residence; to this day, the octagonal pavilion constructed in 1759 as the facility’s breakfast room and salon remains the focal point of the zoo’s architecture. Zoo Vienna prides itself on its long-standing devotion to nature conservation and species protection: in 1904, it hosted the birth of the first elephant in captivity, and in 2007, the first panda to be bred without artificial insemination was born here. The zoo’s special features include its Rainforest House, Desert House, Aquarium and Terrarium House, Mexico House, and Polarium.

6. Zoologischer Garten Basel (Basel, Switzerland)
Called “Zolli” by the Swiss, the Zoo Basel opened in 1874 and is world renowned for breeding both pygmy hippopotamuses and Indian one-horned rhinoceroses, for which it holds the international studbook and the European studbook, respectively. It has also facilitated the births of numerous cheetahs, gorillas, and flamingos, among other animals. Zolli’s record-breaking successes prompted New York Times travel writer Robert Bendiner to applaud its “sanitation, a greater than common attention to diets, and careful studies in animal behavior [that have] carried … species into successive generations when few other zoos could breed them at all.” Beginning around April 2010, the zoo’s monkey house and surrounding areas will undergo extensive construction, doubling the apes’ space before it reopens in summer 2011. 

7. Zoologischer Garten Berlin (Berlin, Germany)
Billing itself as “the most species-rich zoo in the world” (with some 1,500 and counting), the Berlin Zoological Garden opened in 1844. The oldest zoo in Germany and the most popular one in all of Europe, it attracts approximately three million visitors from around the globe each year. Zoo Berlin boasts a distinctive combination of modern and historic architecture, including a reproduction of its original Elephant Gate (circa 1899), and one of the most biodiverse aquariums in the world. Its most beloved animal attractions are three-year-old Knut, the first polar bear to be born in this zoo in thirty-plus years, and Bao Bao, born in 1978, the oldest known giant panda in captivity.

It’s a Jungle Out There
Some people find zoos depressing, claiming that wild animals should be left to fend for themselves in their natural habitat. And certainly, when Mother Nature is cooperating and the food chain is running smoothly, animals do thrive on their own. However, in times of drought or famine or when a species is teetering on the brink of extinction, human intervention can work wonders. Thanks to these zoos’ diligent breeding and conservation efforts, countless animals that wouldn’t have stood a chance in the wild are now enjoying renewed health and population booms. And while lions may be hardwired to hunt for every meal on the African savanna, the ones in captivity certainly don’t seem to mind when a zookeeper tosses them a raw steak for dinner.

Updated February 18, 2011


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