Today I visited Zoo Atlanta, the first of a handful of US zoos I will be visiting over the next three weeks, and in fact the first US zoo I've ever been to. On a very hot and steamy day, after about five hours sleep coming off the back of 30 hours in transit, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I'm only in Atlanta because of another place I'm intending to visit (bet you can't guess where) and Zoo Atlanta wouldn't have made the cut if it had to get by on its own. But it does have something special all of its own, which I'll get to shortly. Broadly speaking there are five zones or exhibit complexes in the zoo. The first, going clockwise from the entrance, is an uninspiring African Savannah complex. I'm pretty sure it's on Zoolex, but it's basically a set of barren yards for elephants, black rhinos and a mixed exhibit for giraffes, zebras, ostrich and lesser kudu. The lesser kudu were a first for me, so that was cool. I've seen greater kudu at Werribee but these kudu had horns, which makes them about 100% more impressive. There's a lion exhibit built around a fake kopje and smaller enclosures for Kori bustard, warthogs and meerkats. I almost missed the meerkats, which would have been a shame as they are such a rare species in captivity, and always seem to be displayed in new and original ways. There's another paddock that houses bongos and duikers, but they were both no-shows. The duikers would have been a first for me, but oh well. By the way, there's an unremarkable flamingo pool near the zoo's entrance and a walk-through aviary full of domesticated budgies of all sorts of colour mutations. I know these are popular but they are kinda lost on me, and I spent less than 30 seconds in there. 'African Plains' segues into 'The Ford African Rainforest', the dominant portion of which is taken up by the no less than four huge gorilla enclosures. Gorillas will be something of a feature species of this trip and this was a good start. I think the zoo has something like 22 animals all up, which might even exceed the Australian population as a whole at the moment? The enclosures aren't especially beautiful (nothing at the zoo is, except for one notable exception) but they are big. Unlike almost of Australia's gorilla exhibits they have extensive grass cover, which the gorillas were busily grazing. There were several youngsters, one of which I was pleased to see had beaten the hot wire to get up into a tree's upper branches. The other part of the Ford rainforest is the 'Living Treehouse' - a walk-through bird aviary (walking along a covered boardwalk at tree height) which also provides views into two netted enclosures for ring-tailed and ruffed lemurs and drills and Wolf's guenons (both lifetime firsts for me). Seeing the lemurs cohabitating (I think there were trios of each, it wasn't a large enclosure) really did make me wonder why Melbourne built that big walk-through for ring-taileds and left their ruffed lemurs to go almost unnoticed in the last remaining great ape grotto behind it. Integrate them! This area also has another netted enclosure for colobus monkeys tucked in behind them. 'Asian Forest' is a hodgepodge of good to average, with one great exhibit. That title is reserved for an immense habitat for orangutans. Both Sumatrans and Borneans were labelled here and to be honest I don't know which they were. There's a second smaller orang habitat as well so maybe they rotate for enrichment. The other big draws in 'Asia' are Sumatran tigers, sun bears and the biggest name of all, the giant pandas. All are in perfectly serviceable if unoriginal exhibits.mthe tiger one has four different viewing points yet still manages to afford the tiger a decent amount of privacy. It took me ages to find it and, given that Sumatran tigers are a bit old-hat for me I probably would have given up had it not been for the ease with which a group of school children found it earlier. My pride threatened, I finally found it camouflaged in the shadows by the back wall. Next to the tiger is a large-ish (at least twice the size of Singapore Night Safari) for clouded leopards. I don't have much luck with this species, they're always hiding as far from view as possible. All I saw was a blob of hair near the top of the exhibit. Smaller Asian species like Reeve's Muntjac (a really, really weird exhibit in which most of the glass had been tinted green, presumable to add privacy), raccoon dog (sleeping off the oppressive heat), wreathed hornbill, Komodo dragon, red panda (another no show) and binturong. Signage and theming throughout the zone pushes home a message aimed mostly at critiquing the wildlife trade in Asia. Alas, the complex name is becoming a misnomer as bush dogs, naked mole rats and fossa (lifetime first) have all crept in here. So too has a very pleasant surprise - giant otters. They were in a standard otter exhibit that was also signposted for small-clawed otters, and I wondered if they had a timeshare arrangement. In the southeast corner of the zoo is a hodgepodge zone of small exhibits, a children's zoo and various visitor amenities. the zoo map is quite inadequate here as the entire area is labarynthine, and I got well and truly lost. There's also quite a few animals on display that aren't labelled, including two-toed sloths in what I took to be a re-purposes aviary, Pygmy African hedgehog and a lot more aviaries than 'Exotic Birds' really does credit to on the map. There's also lots of tortoises - there must be close to 20 testudines species at Atlanta, all up. One visitor brought new warmth to this Zoochatter's cold, dead heart when he kept pointing out smaller, less common species to his children and saying 'they don't get no respect(!)' compared to the ABC animals that, to be fair, are present in great numbers throughout the zoo. Pretty much this entire section of the zoo is made up of very basic wood and wire structures that are more associated on this site with European rather than American zoos. But that's ok by me. Not everything has to cost a fortune to make me happy. During my visit I left the part I was most looking forward to - the new reptile house - to last, both to savour the anticipation and to take advantage of its air conditioning during the middle of the day. "Scaly, Slimy Specatcular" has a terrible name, but it is spectacular! Just a couple of months old, this is hands down the best reptile house I've ever seen. I took photos of every sign so when I get home I'll be able to post a full species list and a proper count of the number of exhibits, but for now take my word for it that SSS is worth the price of admission to Atlanta on its own. The terraria are generous in space, and for most of them that's a considerable understatement. To give just one example a pair of prehensile-tailed skinks had a terrarium that was the size of a luxury walk-in wardrobe. Most were smaller but I don't think there was a single exhibit that didn't go above and beyond the standard set for similar reptiles anywhere else I've been. Some of these herps have bigger enclosures, I imagine, than some Georgia prison inmates. The first two 'rooms', for lack of a better word, are within an enormous, high-ceiling atrium that gave the animals abundant natural light. Unfortunately there is a fair degree of reflection on the glass but I was there not long after noon and I suspect it affects different exhibits at different times. The terraria are all beautifully landscaped to reflect the micro-habitats of the species housed, and most if not all contained live plants. The visitor space is wide and unlike some reptile houses, the crowds weren't a significant bother. There's quite a few triangular-shaped terraria that are perhaps 2 metres in height, housing arboreal (though in a couple of cases terrestrial) reptiles. They had glass on all thr sides and I hope the zoo is monitoring to ensure the animals in these tanks aren't too stressed by the relative exposure. With relaxed enough animals they are fantastic, and some are landscaped very innovatively. Even the signage here is good. It uses electronic signs, which normally I'd hate because you can't control what you see at any one time. But these were touch-screen activated (do I vaguely recall a poster talking about providing such signs for an upcoming project on Zoochat at one point?) and allow the amount of info available, should a visitor want it, to be expanded without delivering a huge slab of text. For smaller tanks these touch screens provided signage for multiple enclosures, and again the user could bring whichever one they wanted to the screen. The collection ranges from iconic reptile house staples through to some amazing rarities, and somebody will have to prompt me in due course to post the species list. I'm sorry to say that I don't have a camera that's up to the task of publishing usable photos in humid conditions, so you will have to wait for a better-equipped visitor to document SSS for Zoochat. I don't know what sort of competition it has, but if something bests it in the AZA design awards it will have to be good. As an aside, there's a second, smaller reptile house adjacent to SSS that houses native Georgian reptiles. It seems half-finished, and includes a massive pool exhibit that I would have assumed is for American alligators if they weren't already inside SSS. There's also a stock-standard lawn exhibit for Aldabran giant tortoises outside. That's all for now. If you're flying Delta any time soon, think about building in enough of a layover in Atlanta to check out SSS. All up, the visit to the zoo took about 3.5 hours and that included doubling back a couple of times to various parts, as well as a good 35 minutes in the best reptile house I've ever seen.