Tucked in between North Carolina's three largest cities, the North Carolina Zoo is one of America's newest zoos, having opened its gates in 1971. It is also one of the largest walking zoos (as opposed to drive-through safari parks) in the world, sprawling over 2,000 acres. These two traits make it one of the most extraordinary zoos in the nation, where modern philosophy of animal husbandry and zoo exhibit design were given a clean slate and room to grow.
For the first half of the zoo's relatively young existence, it focused almost exclusively on animals of Africa. Perhaps the most extraordinary exhibit is the massive Watani Grasslands - at forty acres, bigger than many zoos are in their entirety. White rhinos are the stars here, but they share the grasslands with several species of African antelope and tall birds. African elephants are found in an adjacent enclosure, which appears to be part of the main exhibit. Zebras, giraffe, and ostrich are found in a nearby enclosure. Further exhibits in the Africa area house lions, lemurs, and red river hogs. Two of Africa's great apes - chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas - are found in their own spacious meadow exhibits.
Ironically for such a young zoo, the state-of-the-art exhibit when the zoo opened is now emptied of animals. The old African Pavilion used to be home to a recreated African rainforest, featuring leopards, mandrills, and a collection of African birds and reptiles. Now it stands mostly empty of animals - outside, a cliff-face habitat holds hamadryas baboons. The bird collection of the zoo is located in the nearby Reynold's Forest Aviary; grab a laminated guide (or print your own off at home) and try to find as many of the beautiful birds as you can in this wild-through forest. Prior to the addition of North American exhibits, this was the only display to break the geographic mold.
Starting in the 1990's, the zoo began dabbling with North American wildlife with fantastic results. In the first of the North American exhibits to open - the Sonoran Desert - roadrunners, tortoises, rattlesnakes, quail, and ocelot are found beneath a glass dome. Nocturnal creatures of the desert - including vampire bats and cacomistle (or "ringtail cats", actually a raccoon relative) are found in a darkened side gallery. Other biomes represented in the North American area are the swamp (home to alligators and puma), the plains (bison and elk, with geysers in the foreground), and the Stream, where otters, turtles, and fish can be seen underwater. Three of North America's largest predators are found in side-by-side enclosures for grizzlies, black bears, and red wolves; North Carolina is the only place on earth where red wolves still live in the wild. The final North American area is the Rocky Coast, where polar bears, seals, and a large collection of Arctic seabirds are displayed. Some of the "Suarez Seven", polar bears rescued from a life in a Mexican circus, found their homes here.
Any issues that the zoo visitor has with North Carolina Zoo will mostly have to do with scale. It's big and spread out, and it can be tiring for parents to navigate children through what seem like empty stretches (that and it's surprisingly easy to get lost). The enormous enclosures may frustrate some visitors - to my amazement, when I first visited the Watani Grasslands, I didn't see a single animal - rhino, antelope, or bird - in the entire area. Still, it's probably better to change visitor expectations about what a zoo should be rather than change a zoo to be what we think visitors might want at the expense of the animals.
Apart from its excellent exhibits, the zoo has a celebrated breeding history (especially among birds), as well as a great conservation track record, supporting conservation and research programs in Africa and in North Carolina. Recently, the zoo has begun hinting at a possible third geographic area - Asia. If they accomplish it on the scale that they have with Africa and North America, North Carolina Zoo could stand to be one of the greatest, most exciting zoos on the east coast.