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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.

African Plains

elephant enclosureZoo 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.

Bongo enclosureAnother 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

Gorilla enclosure separationFol­low­ing 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.

Guira cuckooSuperb starling

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.

Asian For­est

Malayan sun bearThe 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.

raccoon dogsFol­low­ing 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.

Com­plex Carnivore

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.

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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