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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Zoo Review: Brookfield Zoo

Located in the suburbs of Chicago, the Brookfield Zoo is one of the newest of the major American zoos - by the time it opened its gates in 1934, the zoo world had already begun its transition towards barless, more natural enclosures, and the zoo was able to take advantage of that trend.  It has a second advantage over its neighbor, the Lincoln Park Zoo - space.  With over 200 acres of grounds to work with, the collection can be spread out in a manner that is impossible in its smaller, urban counterpart.

When I went to Brookfield, I wasn't sure how much time I was going to have, so I made a beeline for the exhibit that I wanted to see most of all - the Australia House.  Featuring one of the most impressive collections of Australian wildlife in North America, the building displays an assortment of reptiles, amphibians, and birds in handsome enclosures, while kangaroos, cassowaries, and emus roam outdoor paddocks.  For most guests, the highlight will be the final exhibit, where fruit bats fly in a darkened hallway.  For me, the best part was a chance to see a species seldom seen in American zoos - the southern hairy-nosed wombat, a species for which Brookfield is famous, not only for its work with wombats in captivity, but for its efforts to conserve them in the wild.

A southern hairy-nosed wombat reclining inside a hollow log in the Australia House

In recent years the zoo has undergone renovation of many of its older exhibits, with some fantastic new displays now gracing the campus.  Most of the African animals are seen in the two part Habitat Africa!  In the Savannah, giraffes, gazelles, and wild dogs inhabit outdoor yards, visible from a central building that also houses reptiles, birds, and small mammals, such as rock hyraxes.  A breeding group of aardvarks is seen in a nearby building of their own.  The Forest exhibit features crocodiles, duikers, and chameleons, but it is the okapi which are the stars - Brookfield was the first zoo in America to breed this rare forest-giraffe.  The (newish) Living Coast building takes guests through a tour of coastal South America (an awesome geographic area which is seldom displayed in zoos), where sharks, sea turtles, and other marine creatures glide past underwater windows.  The tour ends with a habitat of Humboldt penguins and other seabirds; a flight cage outside holds Andean condors.  The zoo's newest major exhibit take guests on a walk across North America, home to bison, bald eagles, brown and polar bears, and endangered Mexican wolves.

Visitors watch Humboldt penguins, Inca terns, and other seabirds in The Living Coast

Apart from the Australia House, the exhibit that excited me the most was the carnivore area - Fragile Kingdom.  The first portion, an outdoor area, passes enclosures of a variety of big cats - lions and tigers, leopards and snow leopards - as well as sloth bears.  Two indoor areas take guests first through a southeast Asian rainforest, inhabited by binturong, clouded leopard, small-clawed otters, and pythons, and then an African desert, where fennec foxes, black-footed cats, meerkats, and other small carnivores are seen.  

The only exhibit which truly disappointed me was, ironically, the zoo's most famous display - Tropics World.  Once the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the world, this "rainforest" is supposed to show visitors the jungles of South America, Asia, and Africa.  Primates are the stars here, with orangutans, gibbons, spider monkeys, and marmosets being some of the species encountered.  The lower levels of the exhibit are home to tapirs, giant anteaters, and pygmy hippos.  Like many of the earliest attempts to recreate rainforests, this exhibit is, unfortunately, a lot of concrete with some fake-looking trees sticking out of it.  I'm sure the zoo can - and will - do better at the next go around.  Even though the exhibit didn't live up to its hype, it was neat seeing the scene of one of the most interesting incidents from recent zoo history - it was in this exhibit that a young boy fell into the gorilla display and was protected by Binti Jua, a female gorilla (and niece of the famous sign-langauge-using Koko), who kept other gorillas back before carrying the boy to rescue personnel.

An overview of Tropic World's African area, showing mandrill and pygmy hippo.  One of the zoo's gorillas (maybe even the famous Binti Jua?) playing with some hay.

Many of the other exhibits here I only had time to do a quick run-through - the reptile and bird houses, the hoofstock yards - and others I had to miss due to time, such as the dolphins and the swamp building.  I missed the children zoo entirely (which, to be fair, was on the bottom of my to-do list), but Brookfield's children zoo is supposed to be the best in the nation, an innovator in conservation play.  It's always hard to see and take in everything in a major zoo, especially when it is your first time visiting.  That just means there is always something to come back for.

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