Banyan Wilds Review: Woodland Park Zoo opened its Banyan Wilds complex on May 2nd, 2015, to much fanfare and at a total cost of $20 million. The first phase of development actually made its debut in the spring of 2013 and consisted of an Asian Small-Clawed Otter exhibit, an Asian bird aviary and a children’s play area. As of 2015 the loop is complete with the addition of a Malayan Tiger habitat and a pair of Sloth Bear enclosures, along with a Conservation Field House and a mini-plaza for guests to congregate. The good news is that the 2-acre slice of land newly dubbed “The Heart of the Zoo” has gone from showcasing a trio of 1950’s era grottoes to a more modern, naturalistic Asian-themed zone that is superior to its predecessor. The bad news is that all of the additions are underwhelming, and considering the cost and the status of the zoological park there is a palpable sense of disappointment lingering in the air. The first phase of the complex consisted of an average-sized aviary that is still lushly planted but nothing that holds the average visitor for more than a few seconds. The children’s play area incorporates a variety of items that are not usually found in such zones (mini zipline, bamboo-themed poles, wooden bridge and steps) and far more time is spent in that area. Since the play zone is along the main pathway there are countless children who inhabit it and in retrospect it is far too small as it fills up quickly and is jam-packed on busy days. The highlight of the first phase is the Asian Small-Clawed Otter exhibit simply because the original pair rapidly produced 8 young in a fairly short period of time. To witness a rampaging horde of 10 otters traversing their sloped exhibit is a wondrous thing, even though the denuded foliage has never quite recovered. A major flaw of the enclosure is the lack of underwater viewing, although a zoo having a second otter species is never a bad thing. The second phase of the complex has a pair of Sloth Bear exhibits adjacent to each other but the enclosures are simply a refurbishing of the original 1950’s era grottoes. Sloth Bear exhibit #1 is the very same enclosure that has held Sloth Bears for decades, with the exhibit still practically devoid of grass and a fake-looking, rocky den has been constructed to best showcase a bear to the public. The climbing apparatus, consisting of several large wooden slabs, has been removed and glass viewing windows have been erected along the right-hand side of the exhibit. That has dramatically cut down on the viewing opportunities for the public, as instead of having a guard rail running along the entire outer wall there is now a fairly narrow viewing window with frosted panes that makes it difficult to see a bear if the creature is towards the back of the enclosure. Sloth Bear exhibit #2, which held Sun Bears for many years, is actually able to be joined to exhibit #1 and hasn’t been altered much from what it looked like more than half a century ago. Rock formations have been added, a lot of foliage and greenery has been eliminated, and massive viewing windows have been situated along one side of the exhibit. One could argue that the Sloth Bear complex is most definitely an improvement on what was originally there, but the improvement is very slight indeed and some folks might point out that the enclosures are overwhelmingly disappointing. The final installment of the Banyan Wilds complex, other than a Conservation Field House with viewing windows into the tiger exhibit and lots of tiger information plastered on the desks and walls, is the Malayan Tiger habitat that dominates the landscape. The zoo held Sumatran Tigers for decades but the return of the largest cat species in the world to the zoo has been a marketing dream come true as visitors young and old alike all jump at any opportunities to see tigers up close and personal. A trio of male tigers, brothers from Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas, are full of youthful energy and they make an enchanting exhibit on their own. Analyzing the enclosure itself, it is important to acknowledge that perception plays a part in the analysis. At hundreds of zoos around the world the new Malayan Tiger habitat in Seattle would be the best part of the zoo-going experience, a multi-million dollar bonanza of stripes and claws in a naturalistic landscape. However, Woodland Park has won numerous awards over the years for the quality of its animal exhibits and the tiger complex is simply good; even a little adequate and borderline mundane by the zoo’s high standards. The Malayan Tiger exhibit is adequate in terms of size but nothing that would set the heart racing. The frosted window panes are annoying; the mock-rock with its creeping banyan branches is impressive but also distracting; the mesh and obvious poles clash with the log-strewn, riverbank feel of the outer edge of the enclosure. Seeing a metal caged section (gates to the indoor housing?) is awkward; and the lack of underwater viewing for the pool is a missed opportunity. The new tiger exhibit is not terrible by any stretch of the imagination and the mixture of tall deciduous and conifer trees is an impressive backdrop (although all far outside the actual enclosure) but for a zoo as revered as Woodland Park the opening of a major exhibit has high expectations. To have $20 million in new investments at a world-renowned zoo and have the end result disappoint is a major letdown.