Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the United States, is brand-new – again. Over the past ten or fifteen years, the Zoo has undergone a major update, with new exhibits, better quarters for the collections, and a stronger emphasis on conservation and breeding of endangered species.
This tour will start at the north end of the Zoo, after a short stop at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, one of Chicago’s two public glass-houses.
And our first quandary: which way to go: there are rhinos in front of us – Eastern Black Rhinoceros, to be exact. To the left is the new Arctic Tundra, home of the polar bear, with a new African penguin habitat around the back side. From there, it’s somewhat less than a hop, skip and jump to the African Journey. Our path takes us past an outdoor exhibit of the savanna, with giraffes, zebras, and ostriches. To our left as we enter are Red River hogs, who spend a lot of time sleeping. The African Journey takes us first through the rainforest, with exhibits of African storks and ibises (a beautiful, open exhibit, with a waterfall and stream) backed by Diana monkeys behind a floor-to-ceiling screen, then on to cockroaches (don’t even ask – thankfully, it’s completely glassed-in), a cutaway exhibit showing how a termite mound works, the pygmy hippo, dwarf crocodiles, and then into the savannas (actually, a kopje), with a startled-looking klipspringer sharing quarters with African love birds and Guinea fowl (and a flock of sparrows who got in somehow and seem in no hurry to leave). The dry thorn wood is next, with an aardvark and meerkats, and a view of the giraffes when they are inside. (There is also a windowed look-out into the outdoor savanna on the way in.) Signage in the African Journey not only describes the animals (although anyone who can figure out all the cichlid fishes in the Rift Valley Lakes exhibit is a superhero, as far as I’m concerned), but also points out the interactions of the native peoples and their environment, both past and present. I would wish for more in-depth information, but the standard in zoo signage has always been pretty much bare-bones. This is a lot more helpful than just a label with the basic information on the animals (which is still available), and points up the Zoo’s commitment to education and conservation.
We’re back at the north end, next to the rhinos, so we’ll head the other way, down toward the Japanese macaque forest. The macaques, also known as “snow monkeys,” are among the biggest draws, especially since there are youngsters cavorting around.
Then it’s a stroll past the African Painted Dogs on the way to the Predatory Birds and the Bird House, another complete gut-and-rehab job with habitat groups and a free-flight area, complete with rushing tropical mountain stream. Two warnings: don’t stand under the dead tree that arches over the walkway unless you want a “gift,” and be prepared to duck: when I say “free flight,” I mean free flight. This is one of those areas where patience is rewarded: you have to spend some time looking if you hope to see the birds. And ignore the Nicobar Pigeons and Green-Naped Pheasant Pigeons sharing the walkway with you.
Walking again past the African dogs and the Predatory birds, we’re headed toward the central plaza that lies between the main east and west entrances, with the Landmark Cafe serving the traditional zoo fare at traditional zoo prices (hot dogs, hot dogs, and more hot dogs: you have to have a hot dog at the zoo — it’s a rule). On the west side is the Seal Pond and a little farther on, the new Children’s Zoo, with outdoor exhibits that include North American animals – wolves, bears, and beavers – and a house with smaller specimens – turtles, frogs, small raptors, and the like – and indoor viewing areas for the otters and beavers.
To the east are the Great Cats. The lions and tigers have free access to their indoor and outdoor quarters, as do most of the animals. Just opposite is the gift shop, with contents as might be expected. On the south side of the building are snow leopard, Eurasian lynx, red pandas (!), Amur leopard and a reliably sleepy cougar. The old Reptile House, directly south of the Great Cats, is now a food court, with several vendors inside and extensive indoor and outdoor seating.
Another quandary: east to the Primate House, or west to the Reptile and Small Mammal House and the Lagoon?
We decide on the primates: a heavily remodeled exhibit area in the shell of the old Monkey and Ape House, and a vast improvement: exhibits are much larger, with room for the monkeys and gibbons to climb and swing, and actual landscaping (as much as possible for something as destructive as our nearest cousins) with painted backdrops that illustrate the animals’ natural habitats. Then we can head over to the reptiles and small mammals. The African apes are housed separately, with fairly large outside areas they can use then they like.
The first section of the Reptile and Small Mammal House is fairly traditional: smallish enclosures with one or two inhabitants – fortunately, reptiles don’t move around much, and it can be fun to try to find some of the snakes coiled up in piles of dead leaves or hanging off branches, and small mammals are, well, small. The dwarf mongooses have a relatively large area to run around in, and are terrifically entertaining to watch. As we head on, past the fruit bats in their two-room apartment, we enter into the Baobab tree, with a tape recorded description of how important the tree is to the animals and people around it (complete with thunderstorm and lightning). You can spend a while trying to find the bush babies – their habitat is really dark. Fennec foxes, a recent addition, occupy the next habitat. And then we enter into the next area: moist, open, with skylights and large enclosures, for the Asian small-clawed otters, African squirrels, marmosets, turtles, crocodiles and caimans. On the other side, the dry climate area, are another fennec fox, a couple of huge tortoises, a Patagonian cavy, and another new arrival in their own little bit of jungle, Puerto Rican parrots. We exit to the bridge that crosses the Waterfowl Lagoon, where there is a pair of breeding trumpeter swans and hosts of ducks of many varieties. On the east side of the south portion of the Lagoon are Chilean flamingos, who regularly produce chicks and don’t seem to mind Chicago’s winters at all.
We now head south to the Hooved Mammals (not all hooved — zebras, Bactrian camels, ostriches, red kangaroos, peccaries). That brings us back around to the great apes.
Past the Café Brauer in a Prairie Style building and across an access road, and we are in the new Farm in the Zoo, just to the west of South Pond – much scaled back from its former days, but also much better laid out and more informative: there is a Dairy Barn, with periodic demonstrations of milking and an area where you can pet the goats; a Beef Cattle exhibit, with a surly-looking Black Angus and several sheep; a Main Barn, with exhibits of hatching chicks and explanations of how a farm works; and areas showing field crops and a kitchen garden.
I’ve been going to Lincoln Park Zoo for decades, and remember when it was much more a traditional menagerie than a modern zoo – small cages with iron bars and tile floors, and animals that were bored to death. Over the past two decades, Lincoln Park has been completely transformed: the collections have been scaled back, but the exhibits are much better for the animals, who seem much livelier (keeping in mind that most animals don’t do much unless they are looking for something to eat). The Zoo has taken very seriously its role as an educational institution, and even more seriously its role as an institution devoted to conservation and the environment: Lincoln Park has been a leader in breeding the Indian lion and the lowland gorilla, the cheetah and the trumpeter swan (cygnets really do make ugly ducklings), red pandas, all animals that are endangered in the wild, some critically. And it’s pleasant: there is lots of shade from big old trees, landscaping is definitely a consideration (there are huge drifts of daffodils in the spring), and the walkways are broad and well-maintained. I would vote for more seating in the various houses, because it’s a year-round place to visit (seriously: open 365 days a year), but there are lots of benches outside, and picnic areas both open and sheltered. It’s a big city zoo, without a lot of room to grow, but for the same reason, it is the most heavily visited zoo in the country – it’s easy to get to (right in Lincoln Park), and it’s free. I should also note that the Zoo hosts a series of special events throughout the year: we’ve just come through Fall Fest, with pumpkins galore and rides for the kids, and coming soon is Zoo Lights, during which the whole Zoo is lit up at night. Check out the website for more information.