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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Zoo Review: Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

If any single exhibit put the Jacksonville Zoo on the map, it would be the award-winning Range of the Jaguar.  The largest jaguar exhibit in the US, it’s a sprawling, multi-part exhibit that displays several jaguars, increasing the odds that someone will be up and about doing something interesting (maybe even fishing – it’s the only big cat exhibit I’ve ever seen with underwater viewing).  Behind the jaguars is the Lost Temple, which serves as a Neotropical reptile/small mammal house.  Anacondas, sloths, dart frogs, and other animals are found along the dark, stone corridors.  Outside, additional displays feature tapirs, giant anteaters, and primates before entering one of the most beautiful aviaries I’ve ever seen, with a crystal clear pool of turtles and giant Amazonian fish in the center.  Despite all of the ibises, ducks, herons, and parrots found here, it is (as usual) a mammal that steals the show – giant river otters, seen through an underwater viewing window along one side of the aviary.

Range of the Jaguar is actually several jaguar exhibits, with cats constantly moving between exhibits and between on- and off-exhibit holding areas.

Fish, turtles, and giant river otters compete with the birds for visitors' attention in the Emerald Forest Aviary

Even more expansive than the South American collection is the African one, seen along the Plains of East Africa.  Lions, leopards, and cheetahs are found along the trail in handsome exhibits, but the greatest views are of the sweeping ungulate yards.  White rhinos, zebra, okapi, and various antelope mingle with tall African birds (including imposing goliath herons) as they strut across the plains or mingle at the waterhole.  A massive tree alongside the boardwalk holds a (wild) colony of endangered wood storks, which nest at eye level with visitors.  Completing the trail is an African reptile house (specializing in many of Africa’s deadliest snakes – puff adders, green mambas, Egyptian cobras), a series of enclosures for small mammals and birds (hyraxes, vultures, fruit bats), and African elephants.  Giraffes are found just off the trail in their own spacious yard, where they can be viewed from an observation deck.

The zoo does equal justice to native wildlife on Wild Florida.  The collection here is wonderful, but it’s exhibits are probably the least impressive of the regions in terms of size and complexity.  Starting off with American alligators, the trail leads past black bears, white-tailed deer, and bobcats.  Critically endangered Floridians (and former Floridians) seen include Florida panthers, whooping cranes, and red wolves.  At the end of the trail is the zoo’s third reptile house, this one focusing on native species (a very cool feature is that the larger displays allow indoor/outdoor access for the occupants).

Other residents of the zoo are the primates (gorillas, bonobos, and mandrills), Magellanic penguins, and a small Australian area, featuring kangaroos, lorikeets, and cassowaries.  A former koala house has been re-imagined as a frog conservation center, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the work zoos do to halt the amphibian extinction crisis (the Puerto Rican crested toad is especially highlighted here).  A massive African aviary – along with a series of smaller adjacent ones – is located alongside the train tracks that run through the zoo.

I was lucky enough to visit the zoo shortly after the opening of its newest exhibit – Land of the Tiger.  The exhibit attempts to recreate the magic of Range of the Jaguar – its tiger exhibits are connected with shift tunnels that take the big cats over the heads of astonished visitors.  Side displays hold otters, hornbills, and two species of Asian wild pig.  Komodo dragons are found nearby.

In 2003, the zoo’s name was officially changed to emphasis some of its most stunning assets – the lush gardens that fill the park.  The Savanna Blooms gardens in front of the giraffe exhibit are surpassed in beauty only (in my opinion) by the Asian Monsoon gardens, near the tigers.  The later is nearby the Trout River, a beautiful place to stroll between the animals.  The gardens serve to highlight the zoo’s best advantage: climate.  With a year-round growing season, plants are lush and abundant, while many animals are able to remain outdoors year round. 

The tunnels above the visitor pathway allow the zoo's tigers to travel from one exhibit area to another, crossing directly over the heads of astonished visitors.

Even the parts of the zoo which I found the least impressive – the Australian area and some of the exhibits (Florida’s wolf and bear, in particular) still compared favorably to many zoos, and nothing I saw really looked that old or outdated.  There were lots of visitor amenities, grounds were clean, and – despite being a busy day – crowds were very manageable.  I attribute this to the zoo’s layout; unlike many zoos, no animals are visible from the main pathway.  To see any animals, you must take one of the looping side trails.  This, I suspect, improves the flow of traffic and keeps crowds from bunching up.

Jacksonville Zoo has grown tremendously over the past several years and has quickly taken its place as one of the most respected zoos in the country.  It will be very interesting to see what new developments the near future will bring.

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