One of the great things about visiting the small, less-famous zoos is that I generally haven't scouted them out so much. When I visit a well-known zoo, like Omaha, for the first time, I've already heard so much about its famous exhibits or must-see animals that it's like I've already been there. Not so at Racine. Wandering inside the gates, I first made my way to the Australian walkabout, where visitors can take a meandering path through a grassy yard grazed by wallaroos, kangaroos, and emu. Black swans paddle a small pool in the center, while Guam rails inhabit a small side enclosure. Outside of the exhibit is a feeding aviary for budgies and cockatiels. A farmyard with domestics and a playground are nearby.
Towering over the zoo is the castle-like Vanishing Kingdom, a red-brick tower that houses the primate and carnivore collections. Inside its gothic interior, fossa, coati, lemurs, and tamarins line the halls. A semi-circular glassed-in enclosure houses a hybrid orangutan, while gibbons have access to outdoor enclosures. Dominating the hallway, however, is the lion exhibit. On nice days, the lions are more likely to be found outside in a grassy yard (I caught myself wondering about the wisdom of switching out the lions for snow leopards or Amur leopards, which are not only smaller but could comfortably spend more of the year outdoors). Adjacent to their exhibit are enclosures for Canada lynx and Amur tiger. Down the path, a small island exhibit is split down the middle into two very different habitats - an arid desert yard, for meerkats, on one side, with a pool for African penguins on the other.
I was casually enjoying the zoo up until this point... when I walked outside and found myself facing an enormous aviary. Eagles? Condors? I wasn't sure what I'd find until I walked inside... and I'm not being melodramatic, I swear I actually gasped. I had no idea that Racine is one of only two zoos outside of Asia to exhibit the magnificent lesser adjutant stork, which I observed standing on a platform at the top of the aviary (the other is the Bronx). The aviary itself was gorgeous, wooded and grassy with meandering streams and shallow pools. Sharing it with the storks were tufted deer, which approached quiet close to the small wooden deck where visitors could observe the storks from inside the aviary. Immediately outside the aviary, I had to do another double take - a concrete mountain stood across the path, its top crowned by a handsome goat-like animal with massive horns. The pair of tur on exhibit at this zoo are, to my knowledge, the only ones in the New World, and I spent about half of my camera battery on the male alone.
Andean bears are far more common than tur or adjutants in zoos, but I will give Racine props for the most attractive habitat for this species I've ever seen. South America's only bear can be seen from either a high viewing deck or through viewing windows that peer into a cave dwelling.
The zoo's newest habitat is the Land of Giants trail, home to giraffe, black rhinoceros, and mountain zebra. It looked like more construction was in process, so I'm not sure if more exhibits are to come.
I almost missed the tiny reptile, amphibian, and fish collection, tucked into what I thought was a supply closet near the bathrooms at the entrance. This didn't dazzle me too much - I think it might have been better suited just doing one or two larger exhibits than a clutter of tanks (many of which held juveniles of species that there would be no room to house as adults). Featured in this room was a darkened display case of fruit bats.
One extraordinary asset that Racine Zoo has is its location. It lies smack up against Lake Michigan, which forms a beautiful backdrop to the education stage. On a quiet, drizzly day like the one I visited on, with no visitors in sight, it was possibly to walk though the park and hear only the gentle lap of the waves on the beach.