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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Zoo Review: Virginia Zoo

Prior to my most recent visit, I hadn't been to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk in over a decade.  It's amazing how much the facility has evolved since then.  The African area - Okavango Delta - has gone from a single enclosure to a sprawling trail with over a dozen exhibits, including mandrills, red river hogs, lions, elephants, and giraffes.  The old pachyderm building has been demolished.  An entirely new Asian area - Trail of the Tiger - opened up.  Tigers, of course, are the stars here, but orangutans, Malayan tapirs, two species of bear, and two species of gibbon also have new habitats.  The last vestige of the old zoo that remains is the somewhat shabby (and I'm saying this as a friend...) reptile/small mammal house.  Hopefully, this final structure will be replaced with something equal to the caliber of the newer exhibits.

There are a lot of great things about the Virginia Zoo.  Many of the new exhibits are spacious, natural, and attractive; especially noteworthy are the tiger, orangutan, rhino, and lion exhibits.  There are some pretty innovative features too.  In the Asian area, visitors can watch the red pandas draped over a tree limb directly over the main pathway with nothing - no nets, no glass, nothing - in between.  The African area allows guests a behind-the-scenes peek of the elephant and giraffe facilities.  Even one of the older displays, the prairie dog exhibit, got visitors crawling through tunnels for a peek of the prairie dogs at eye level.  The zoo also has a surprising collection of species uncommon in other zoos, including mountain zebras, blue dwarf geckos, and my first ever Australian brush turkey (actually a megapode).

There were a few things I didn't especially like.  The enclosures in the reptile/small mammal house were kind of mediocre (the ocelot exhibit especially struck me as pretty bad), but to be fair, name a zoo that doesn't have one or two older exhibits that just need to be replaced.  While the main exhibits of the African and Asian areas were very nice, some of the small animal enclosures were a little disappointing, viewing wise.  The glass-fronted bird and reptile displays in Africa had horrible glare issues, making it impossible to see inside.  The Asian aviary was also hard to see into.  The layout was a bit chaotic, and while I didn't mind too much having to trek from one end of the zoo to the other with long periods of no exhibits, I did hear some visitors getting irate. What probably annoyed me the most was how many of the exhibits featured visitors looking down (sometimes almost directly) on the animals.  I've always felt that it's best to see animals at eye-level, if not slightly elevated.  Ever seen a bongo from directly overhead?  I have now...

A few (let's be honest, minor) gripes aside, it was a treat to get back to Norfolk and see all the great improvements that Virginia Zoo has made over the years.  I hope that it continues to flourish and develop as Virginia's largest AZA-accredited zoo.

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