Brookfield Zoo Review Date of Visit: August 14, 2015 The Brookfield Zoo is one of the most famous and largest city zoos in the country and has a rich history. The zoo is about evenly mixed between taxidermy (Pachyderms, Big Cats, Pinniped Point, Feathers and Scales, Hoofed Animals), geography (Habitat Africa, Australia) and Habitat (Tropic World, the Swamp). With the exception of elephants (who are scheduled to come back in the future), almost every major animal can be found at the zoo and the quantity of exhibits is quite impressive. It reminds me of the Bronx Zoo in that it takes several hours to see the entire grounds and there’s a mix of mega-complexes, several indoor exhibits and quite a few smaller sections. However, unlike Bronx (which is very high quality, full of immersion exhibits and has great exhibits for all its superstars except polar bears and arguably elephants), I would describe few exhibits at Brookfield as state-of-the-art, most are in the average to good range and a few stand out as quite weak. It is definitely a good zoo but it has quite a ways to go before it can be called as excellent throughout its grounds. Excellent Wolf Woods- Magnificent habitat that could very well be the best wolf exhibit in the country. It really looks like it is in the wild. The wolves have a massive two-acre yard with plenty of trees, a giant hill, two small ponds, lots of hiding opportunities and lots of bushes and varied terrain. The only downside is sometimes the wolves can be hard to see. However, it is perfect for the carnivores and the very best the zoo has to offer. Habitat Africa: The Savanna- The centerpiece of this complex is the excellent giraffe exhibit. The habitat is quite spacious, dotted with trees and termite mounds, has a small river running on the edge of it, quite grassy, has ample opportunities for browsing and the viewing opportunities are amazing. One thing that stands out about this exhibit is it successfully recreates an African woodland habitat rather than going for the usual Serengeti, open plains approach. African wild dogs live nearby in a grassy kopje exhibit. The exhibit has plenty of corners for the wild dogs to hide, trees that provide shade and quite detailed rockwork. Not the best wild dog exhibit around but quite a good one. Inside the building, klipspringers and birds have the standard mock-rock kopje while the giraffes have an indoor room that is similar to the one at the Bronx Zoo but slightly larger. Outside warthogs and waterbucks share a large grassy habitat and gerenuks have a smaller yard next door. Habitat Africa is a very good exhibit but does not have as many species or exhibits as other African sections. It would be great if eventually lions, black rhinos, zebras and perhaps elephants formed an expansion of this region. Habitat Africa: The Forest- Similar in size and quality to Habitat Africa: the Savanna. The two okapi yards are state-of-the-art and among the best I’ve seen. I like them so much because they actually attempt to recreate a forest (I’ve seen zoos in Jacksonville and Maryland fail miserably at this) and have plenty of space and trees for the closest relatives to the giraffe. The canopy and shade creates the illusion you’re actually in the animal’s natural habitat and stumbling upon an okapi in the Congo. Yellow-backed duikers share one of the habitats with the okapis. Inside blue duikers have a dark, mystical exhibit and the indoor rooms for the okapis are quite good. A nice, shady exhibit houses red river hogs. Great Bear Wilderness- The zoo’s largest and most expensive project to date. Bison live in an impressive grassy yard with plenty of room to roam and a nice rocky forested backdrop. I believe this must be one of the best bison exhibits in the country and it is a thrill to be able to view them at relatively close proximity. Bald eagles live in a large netted aviary nearby. Grizzly bears and polar bears rotate between three yards. On a positive note the pools are quite good and can be seen through amazing underwater viewing windows. On my visit I got to see one of the grizzlies swim and it was a sight to behold. Also, the yards are quite grassy and have a few trees. One of the habitats has a nice waterfall in the background. However, the habitats are a bit small for such a modern and expensive exhibit and the rockwork is a bit grottoesque. I’d say these bear exhibits are definitely good but not truly marvelous. Overall Great Bear Wilderness is a very worthy addition to the zoo and one of its best exhibits with a few things to quibble about. The Swamp- A very good indoor exhibit that recreates a swamp, an underrepresented habitat in America’s zoos. A pond exhibit is quite immersive, the use of wood and vegetation in the building creates the atmosphere of a swamp, solid terrariums for turtles and water snakes, a dark river otter exhibit and a good exhibit for Orinoco crocodiles. Average Australia- The first Australian section in North America holds up decently well. Inside the dark Australian house wombats have a nice sandy exhibit, echidnas have a standard habitat and fruit bats have a solid nocturnal habitat. Outside wombats have an outdoor yard while kangaroos, wallabies and emus share a large grassy habitat. A bit dated but still a solid exhibit. Living Coast- An average indoor penguin exhibit with lots of mock rock and not enough water. Pachyderms- If this exhibit still had elephants and Nile hippos it would be classified as poor but it is actually appropriate for the residents it still has. The medium-sized black rhinoceros yard has a huge mock baobab tree, tons of mock rock in the backdrop and a mixture of grass and sand. A pool is a nice touch and the amount of enrichments is decent but still average at best. Lowland tapirs live in a bland habitat with a large pool and pygmy hippos have a habitat that is quite weak. Pinniped Point- This exhibit was probably state-of-the-art when it opened in 1987 but is average now. Sea lions and seals live in decent sized pools with a bit too much concrete for my liking and a rocky backdrop. Hoofed Animals- Run-of-the-mill hoofstock yards for zebras, Bactrian camels, Preswalzki’s wild horses and addaxes. The yards have enough grass and shade but are too generic and average to be good exhibits. Poor Big Cats- Lions, tigers, snow leopards, Amur leopards and sloth bears live in small grottoes that really should be bulldozed. Defenders will say that it is nice enough they have natural substrate and there are worse grottoes out there but in my book these ones are quite weak since they provide little space or enrichment and no naturalism. Big cats deserve better at this zoo. Seven Seas Dolphin Area- If dolphins should be housed in captivity, they most certainly shouldn’t be in an outdated facility like this one. As with every dolphin exhibit I’ve seen it is not nearly large enough and the tanks are quite old. This should really be replaced with something better. Tropic World- One of the most talked about zoo exhibits in the country, this one is a big thumbs down in my book. First the positives. The amount of space, enrichments and climbing opportunities for the spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, cotton-top tamarins, sloths, giant anteaters, Goeldi’s monkeys (South America), gibbons, Asian small-clawed otters (Asia), guenons, colobus monkeys and swap monkeys (Africa) is excellent and totally appropriate for the species. Also, the indoor thunderstorms are a nice feature and enrichment. However, the entire area is cartoonishy fake and does not attempt to recreate a tropical rainforest in a naturalistic way. To be frank, it looks like a plastic jungle themed play pit for children that has been invaded by rainforest animals. The ponds are especially a joke and don’t look realistic at all. The animals have no access to any structures that are natural. Even worse, it is guilty of two major crimes: housing orangutans and gorillas in all-indoor areas with no access or view of the outside world. Orangutans basically live in a hideously small raised part of the exhibit that has fake trees for them to climb but not near enough vertical or horizontal space. Gorillas inhabit a mock-rock island that is surrounded by a pathway from all sides. These exhibits feeds the stereotypes of anti-zoo critics and are some of the worst habitats in the country. Renovation/overhaul is needed now. The Brookfield Zoo is a very good zoo with a few gems and a few fatal flaws. The size and comprehensiveness of the facility is impressive but the level of exhbitry takes it down a step. I would estimate Brookfield belongs anywhere from 15 to 27 on the list of America’s best zoos. My hope is that more state-of-the-art exhibits would be made ideally for superstars like gorillas, orangutans, lions, tigers, sea lions, penguins and the much missed elephants.