I almost missed the Elmwood Park Zoo. I was on a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo when, at the last minute, I decided to take a brief detour to the north and squeeze in a visit. The moment that I walked in the front gate and saw the eagle exhibit - an enormous, open-air display with the largest group of bald and golden eagles I'd ever seen - I knew this was going to be a worthwhile side-trip. While it is much smaller than its famous neighboring facility, Elmwood Park Zoo boasts of an exciting collection of animals.
Like Beardsley Zoo and Salisbury Zoo, Elmwood Park Zoo has taken up a focus on animals of the Americas. The major exception is the seasonal giraffe exhibit, open during the warmer months of the year (the giraffes being on loan from another facility). When the giraffes aren't in town, the biggest animals in the zoo are the American bison. Bison are a fairly common zoo animal, but Elmwood's exhibit allows an experience far different from your typical zoo. Visitors are actually given the chance to feed America's largest land animal leaves of romaine, under the supervision of zoo staff. An old railroad car alongside the paddock has been converted into a small bison museum, detailing the fall and rise of the iconic animals. A paddock of American elk is located nearby; a trail behind the bison exhibit leads to other prairie dwellers - prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and black-footed ferret.
The Prairie area is the most cohesive unit of exhibits in the zoo - the rest of the animals are grouped in little clumps here and there. Capybara and Chacoan peccary are found in side-by-side displays; gray wolves, red foxes, and bighorn sheep are found by the giraffe yard. Other notable zoo residents include puma, coati, and squirrel monkeys, as well as a small walk-through aviary. Apart from the bison and eagles, my favorite exhibit area was the small pond inhabited by sandhill cranes and Chilean flamingos. Surrounding this display were exhibits of river otters, North American porcupines, bobcat, and American alligator. During the winter, the alligators are moved into The Bayou, a former swamp-themed building that now houses small tropical animals, from fruit bats and saki monkeys to poison dart frogs and Puerto Rican crested toads.
Apart from the initial eagle exhibit (which still leaves me floored), there was nothing in terms of exhibitry at Elmwood that was too astonishing. This isn't Philly, though - it's a small zoo that doesn't try to produce multi-million dollar exhibits. Many of the displays look like they were made in-house, and while they aren't too fancy, they are reasonably naturalistic and of appropriate size; the animals seem comfortable in them and visitors get great views. (There is one exception - the jaguar exhibit is awful in pretty much every sense. That being said, the zoo knows it's an awful exhibit (show me a zoo without one), and plans are already in motion for it to be replaced). Many of the exhibits for tropical animals have adjacent indoor holding displays, allowing animals to be on display year round and moved easily back and forth.
Compared to Philadelphia, Elmwood Park is a small zoo. That being said, it's a zoo that has a plan for what it wants to be. It will definitely be interesting to see how that plan develops over the next few years, and what projects will come out after the jaguar habitat. I know I'll be coming to check again...