Zoo Atlanta is one of the 10 oldest zoos in continuous operation in the United States. It is best known for its leadership in the movement to provide naturalistic habitats for zoo animals. Moreover, Zoo Atlanta is one of the most innovative and broad-reaching educational institutions in the state of Georgia. Over 260,000 school children participate in educational programs each year, according to the AZA website.
Although many zoos go for a different kind of first impression nowadays, Zoo Atlanta still has got the not-so-inevitable-anymore flamingos on the left hand side after the entrance. They even call it Flamingo Plaza. Whatever you think of it, the sight of these pink birds with their long neck and strange beak immediately makes you aware where you are – the Zoo. But the amazingly luscious vegetation and the fresh smell of a recent rain shower is the best invitation to explore this Zoo.
Going left is the most logical choice to start your tour around the Zoo, unless your thirst or hunger takes you to the 'Grand Patio' at the opposite site of the grounds, or your children must see the Kid Zone and petting zoo first.
Zoo Atlanta has exhibited a total of 13 elephants since 1895. Until 1984 the Zoo had Asian elephants, but since 1986 they only had African elephants on display. All three of them have been sourced from the wild, Namibia (Etosha National Park) and Zimbabwe, but it is said they had otherwise been culled. One of them died in 2008 at 26 years of age due to acute pneumonia. They never had a big herd of elephants in Atlanta, and the size of the enclosure doesn't allow a large number of animals, but only two of these very social animals is not the best advertisement for an AZA accredited zoo I would say. Nevertheless, it's a nice and diverse exhibit with large dark boulders, a deep pool at the visitors' side and lots of enrichment. The red soil had coloured the single elephant I saw out in the field red as well, which made the animal almost disappear against the backdrop.
After the slight disappointment regarding the size of the elephant herd I passed the wonderful red muddy environment for the warthog on my way to the savannah area. This mixed species exhibit with its undulating landscape, rocks and sandy substrate, comprised giraffe, ostrich, lesser kudu, zebra and black rhino, though the latter separated from the other species. The female black rhinoceros was pregnant at time of visit and gave birth to Zoo Atlanta's first black rhino calf a few months later, on August 17. Although the environmental enrichment and educational value are up-to-standard in this mixed species exhibit, the number of individuals of the hoofed species that normally live in herds or social groups in the wild is disappointingly low. Another species that occurs in savannah-like area, the Kori bustard – Africa's largest flying bird, is kept close to the hoofed species in an open top enclosure with wire mesh fences all around. The bird is probably not pinioned, because it needs a lot of open space to be able to take off. And its enclosure does not provide a large open space due to all the trees and other vegetation.
Another separate enclosure that belong to the African Plains area is the bongo enclosure that is situated uphill and therefore a bit sloping. It is a grassy hill with a large dry moat at the viewing area and shade provided by two trees and vegetation at the perimeter. The bongo were still in their off-exhibit area, but they share the enclosure with yellow-backed duiker.
Across the footpath from the savannah area a reasonably sized pit-like enclosure for African lions is located. With a high level platform of boulders in the centre the king of the jungle is not too much exposed to the inquisitive visitors. There are two bar-less viewing points and one glass viewing window opposite the enclosure's pool.
The African Rain Forest
Following the trail you enter the area where African primate species are on display with the western lowland gorilla as an absolute highlight. A total of 19 specimens are dispersed over four different magnificent exhibits. These lovely enclosures with an undulating grassy landscape contain huge trees protected by electrical wire at the foot, and have deep dry moats to separate the enclosures from each other and from the visitors.
Besides a bachelor troop in habitat 2, one of the enclosures (habitat 3) comprises a family troop of ten with Taz as their silverback leader. It is a troop with several youngsters, and one gorilla baby born 14 March that year (2013). While I watch a young gorilla climbing a tree, it is mistaken for the newborn baby by some of the visitors. It surprises me how little people know about gorilla biology, and do not take the effort to read the available information at the panels around the enclosures. If they would have done that they should know that a newborn baby gorilla less than three months old is not able to climb trees. This is a blunt generalisation, I know, and there are plenty of people including children who learn about wildlife and biodiversity during a zoo visit. Unfortunately, the children of this particular family went home with a strange idea about the speed gorillas grow up. While this is exactly the situation to teach children about evolution and how closely we are related to the great apes, which shows for instance in similarities in biology. This is especially needed in this country full of people still denying evolution.
Across from the gorilla habitats, the Living Tree House comprises birds and lemurs. It is a walk-through aviary with a high level boardwalk where you can encounter free flying birds, while on one side ring-tailed lemurs and black-and-white lemurs are housed in a fenced off area. In their about 20 m high enclosure with many environmental enrichment features such as wooden climbing facilities, the lemurs are quite exposed but nevertheless very relaxed. They are used to having public in the immediate vicinity because Zoo Atlanta has lemur feeding encounters as an attraction. They have giraffe feeding as well. The aviary has got a mix of bird species from Asia, Africa and South America.
At the exit of the tree house there's a viewing platform with windows, a lookout on the enclosure with drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus) and Wolf's guenon (Cercopithecus wolfi). This is the only point from where you can have a good view at this enclosure with the drills living mainly on ground level and the guenons in the trees. These species seems to do very well in this setup, with the drill being semiterrestrial, foraging mainly on the ground, and climbing the trees to sleep at night, and the guenon being mainly arboreal. It is a great exhibit with shrubs, palm trees and two very large trees that allow the guenon to venture high in these trees.
The Wolf's guenon and drill enclosure is followed by an enclosure with Peter's Angola colobus monkey (Colobus angolensis palliatus) and Schmidt's red-tailed guenon (Cercopithecus ascanius schmidti). Like at the other mixed species primate exhibits the visitor viewing area is from a walkway halfway up the enclosure's height. The monkeys have naturalistic looking climbing enrichment (rubber lianas) at their disposal.
The third and last area focussed on a specific geographical region is the Asian forest. The first enclosure is the one for Malayan sun bear. The two specimens just received their frozen fruit-flavoured popsicle as food enrichment. The exhibit has several viewing areas on different levels, like many enclosures, due to the hilly area of Grant Park where the Zoo is situated. There's a small pool and the bears have access to a high level platform, a climbing rack, but there are no trees to climb. As part of the Zoo's educational effort there's an example of the size of the cages in which people keep Asian black bear on a large scale to produce bear bile, for instance in China. Though this effort should be applauded and more zoos should have such information on a permanent basis, I think more is needed to raise awareness about these bile farms and make people do something about it. For instance footage of an actual bile farm could make the difference, but I understand that many zoos will be reluctant to do so, because most of their visitors still come to be entertained and have fun.
Another impressive naturalistic exhibit is the one for the orangutans. They keep Bornean as well as Sumatran orangutan in two separate enclosures (called habitat 1 and 2). The enclosures have 'Hagenbeck style' (bar-less) viewing with a dry moat at the viewing area. As environmental enrichment the enclosures have wooden frames with hammocks and a roof, like little forest houses.
Zoo Atlanta is dedicated to get their message across about the necessity of nature conservation and the important role zoos must play to gain knowledge by studying animals in captivity. For instance at the orangutan enclosure there's an audio lecture about what is ongoing at Zoo Atlanta orangutan research on these species' behaviour. Considering the educational value of the Zoo's signage (information panels) it must be said that these panels, though small, are informative. But the source of the endangered status of the species is not mentioned (I suppose this will be the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).
A species rare to many zoo collections is the Komodo dragon. At Zoo Atlanta they do not only have it on display in a wealth of green with palm trees, grass and bushes, they also had a 'Wild Encounter' experience for an additional charge – Feed a Komodo dragon. Something I've never seen anywhere else yet. Recent information (April, 2015) on the Zoo's website does not mention Komodo dragon experiences anymore, but only giant panda, Aldabra tortoise, lemur, giraffe and African elephant encounters.
Following the footpath downhill there's another opportunity to see the sun bears, and a bit further down you can view the Sumatran tiger in the adjacent enclosure. On the other side of the footpath they keep Tanuki or raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides). According to the signage this is currently not an endangered species, but they are used by humans for their fur and bones. Their bones are used in traditional Asian medicine. The raccoon dog are now farmed commercially for their fur, so fewer are taken from the wild. I would have expected some additional information on the animal welfare issues here, and a standpoint on the matter. But no, and now it seems as if the Zoo promotes commercial farming of yet another species, because it stops the sourcing from the wild.
From the raccoon dogs it is not far to one of the main attractions of Zoo Atlanta, the giant pandas. The Zoo keeps giant pandas since 1999 and has produced three offspring, and just two months after my visit another two panda cubs are born. All offspring are the product of artificial insemination. The two multilevel moated outdoor enclosures with a few high level resting platforms are empty. It is too hot outside, so, the pandas are in the indoor facilities, which are air-conditioned. Both young giant pandas have an enclosure for themselves, while the parents are kept off exhibit at time of visit. Although the 4-year-old Xi Lan and 2-year-old Po were still on site during my visit, they were being prepared for a move to China later in 2013.
The main grouping of the Zoo's animal collection is based on geographical origin, but in the 'Complex Carnivore' area they brought together several carnivore species from around the globe. There's the bush dog from South America, the fossa from Madagascar, the binturong and Sumatran tiger from Asia and most interestingly it comprises various carnivorous plants! All animals are kept in naturalistic exhibits with lots of vegetation, but I would like to see more space for the fossa and binturong. The latter, together with the tigers, belong to the Asian Forest area as well.
The exhibit for the three Sumatran tigers, formerly housed clouded leopards. Uphill it borders the sun bear enclosure, where the walls still show the blocks used for building them. But it does not distract from the interior that is designed with a naturalistic look resembling Sumatran rainforest, including a small stream and a pond that borders a viewing window.
Another atypical grouping of species for Zoo Atlanta, in this case by taxonomic Class, can be found in the reptile house, the World of Reptiles. It has a large collection of reptiles (snakes mostly) on display, but all in rather common old-fashioned exhibits.
Making my way to the exit, I can't resist having a look at the Kid Zone that besides entertainment comprises some regular enclosures as well, for instance for the cassowary and the golden-lion tamarin. But compared to all other exhibits this tamarin enclosure is a disgrace. The indoor enclosure is completely bare with no vegetation whatsoever, and the only outside area they have at their disposal is a cage of 2m by 0.5 m (height 0.5 m).
Despite this last impression, I think Zoo Atlanta has done a great job, coming back from a very bad situation in the 1980s. It's luscious vegetation creates a pleasant atmosphere, next to the naturalistic habitats they created. Most of the enclosures are situated on the original undulating grounds of Grant Park, which adds to the 'nature experience' during the visit. The same can be said from the water they use in the pools and ponds. This is the first zoo I visit in the U.S., as far as I can recall, which does not have crystal clear water in the exhibits, but natural water. Last but not least, the Zoo's management must be congratulated with their clear decision on the number of species they have on display. A low number that matches the size of the Zoo and therefore allow them to provide sufficient space to almost all of their species.