Unlike many other zoos, Lincoln Park has continued the tradition of displaying most of its animals in taxonomically-themed buildings (housing related animals together) instead of geographic areas. The first exhibit many visitors encounter, for example, is the Kolver Lion House, a century-old beautiful stone building that houses lions, leopards, tigers, jaguar, and puma. Red pandas are also found here, but for a zoo-buff the most exciting find is the exhibit of Pallas cats - rarely displayed wild cats from Central Asia. A very different predator is seen outside at the Kolver Seal Pool, where harbor seals entertain visitors with their antics through underwater windows. This pool has become a popular place for Chicagoans to take a break from their worries during the middle of the workday.
Other animal houses are scattered throughout the zoo grounds (given the brutality of Chicago winters, it makes sense that indoor exhibits would be a priority here). The Helen Branch Primate House features tamarins, lemurs, and Old- and New-World monkeys, though it is the white-cheeked gibbons that are the stars. The McCormick Bird House has a very impressive collection of endangered birds in a series of themed aviaries, including the seashore, the tropical rainforest, and the savannah. Notable residents include Guam rails, Bali mynahs, and Inca terns; outside, cinereous vultures and bald eagles inhabit towering flight cages. Red kangaroos join a series of ungulates - including takin and Grevy's zebra - in a series of hoofstock yards. In probably the most popular animal house, gorillas and chimpanzees clamber over massive climbing structures under the watchful gaze of zoo researchers; the zoo has contributed much to the knowledge and understanding of African apes. One of the biggest treats is watching the chimps "fish" for termites in their artificial termite mound.
Across a placid pond inhabited by trumpeter swans was my favorite animal building - the Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House. The building is divided into three galleries - one is for reptiles and one for small mammals, both being rather typical animal houses - glassed in terrariums of varying sizes, holding animals as diverse as sand cats, rattlesnakes, and fruit bats. The final part is a series of larger, open-aired indoor habitats, where wallabies, cavies, small-clawed otters, and caiman are housed.
Two of the newer exhibits at the zoo break from the taxonomic theme. The Children's Zoo has kid-friendly habitats of North American wildlife, including otters, black bears, beavers, and red wolves. A Farm-in-the-Zoo allows urban children to have their first experience with domestic animals.
The new Regenstein African Journey, taking the site of the former elephant house, takes guests on an indoor-outdoor journey across four African habitats. Outdoors, guests may observe giraffes, antelope, black rhinos (including a new baby), and a pack of African wild dogs. Indoors, they meet meerkats, aardvarks (including a chance to crawl through a tunnel to observe aardvarks underground), crocodiles, colobus monkeys, and pygmy hippos. To my surprise, the display that impressed me the most wasn't of birds, mammals, or reptiles, but of fish - a beautiful, massive aquarium full of colorful fish, used to tell the story of the endangered cichlids of the Rift Valley lakes.
When I visited Lincoln Park for the first time years ago, I wasn't super impressed. A lot of it, I think, had to do with my bias back then against grouping animals taxonomically instead of by geographic area - it struck me as old fashioned and not as educational. I always felt that the zoo was handicapped by its historical buildings - they were beautiful, to be sure, but their age (the bird house was built in 1904) seemed to prevent the zoo from making modifications or renovations that might benefit the animals.
The more I've visited, however (especially having gone behind the scenes), the more impressed I have become. I've seen many zoo exhibits become cliche copies of one another, which, ironically, makes the Lincoln Park layout somewhat original.
It's also impossible to not admire Lincoln Park's contributions to conservation and research. It supports wildlife research programs around the world AND in the Chicago area; it also administers the Population Management Center, which helps govern breeding programs for zoo animals in North America in order to obtain their genetic long-term viability.
Any concerns that I had the Lincoln Park was limited by its older facilities have since been laid to rest. In the next two years, two of its older exhibits will be completely replaced in favor of newer, larger habitats. The old penguin building is gone, soon to be replaced with a forested habitat for Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys. The old "bear-line", home to bears and hyenas, will give way to a greatly expanded polar bear exhibit, as well as a new habitat for African penguins. I'd love to see the Lion House be next on the list of exhibits to be upgraded, hopefully while preserving its architectural beauty.
Lincoln Park is an old zoo with a fascinating past, but the future seems like it will be just as exciting.