Review of the Indianapolis Zoo Welcome to the Indianapolis Zoo | Indianapolis Zoo Found in the capital city of Indiana, the Indianapolis Zoo originally began as a children’s zoo in 1964. The animal collection would go on to double in size through the years, prompting relocation from George Washington Park, to a larger 64-acre site in White River State Park, where it has stood since 1988. From there, Indy has made its mark in the zoo world, from the number of innovative exhibits constructed, to hosting a world first - a successful artificial insemination on an African elephant. Around 320 species of animals call the Zoo home, consisting of about 3,800 specimens. With its relatively recent inception, it is noticeable that Indy has a strong sense of modernism, especially in terms of its animal exhibits. Not only do they represent natural habitats well for the most part, but there is also a surprising level of creativity that was implemented into some of these areas, providing a new experience for animals and guests alike. That balance also translates to the animal collection and guest experiences, making for a strong zoo experience that delivers despite its small size. Animal Exhibit Complexes Forests – The Indianapolis Zoo primarily organizes its animal habitats into biomes, and this was where I started my day. The first exhibit is very nice and roomy for a single red panda, with its strongest component being a large tree, offering the raccoon-like mammals a plethora of climbing opportunities and other behaviors. Just around the corner is a newer renovation – “Tiger Forest,” which opened in 2011. The pair of Amur tiger habitats was renovated in order to accommodate up-close viewing windows and a training wall. The larger habitat (where a female was patrolling her territory) is mostly enclosed in rockwork, and also comes with a variety of natural elements, including a decent-sized pool. The big male tiger could be found across the pathway in a smaller exhibit that is more open in comparison to the larger one. Up next is an average-sized exhibit that held a trio of white-handed gibbons (including an adolescent), and has a decent variety in climbing opportunities and terrain, including rockwork of various heights and what looked to be a drained stream/pool (Asian small-clawed otters used to live here). After this, there is a good amount of walking before arriving at the next set of animals. It is cool to weave through the vegetation and cross over the waterfall area, which includes a fake crocodile in a wishing fountain-like set-up, though it seemed a bit empty at the same time. The next cluster of animal habitats starts with an outdoor/indoor pair of exhibits that has housed a wide variety of species over the years, such as koalas (summer special exhibits) and bats. Now, however, several macaws (scarlet, military, green-winged, hyacinth, great green, blue-and-gold, and blue-throated) can be found coexisting together. When the birds are not soaring through the sky towards the show area at the “Bicentennial Pavilion” (more about that later), they live in an outdoor aviary that is quite tall, and offers a good amount of space to fly or clamber around, along with an indoor room that has a few branches. Then, a pair of Alaskan brown bears lives in an open grotto-like exhibit that consists almost entirely of artificial rock and not much else in terms of naturalistic elements; on the bright side, there is a nice stream that spills into a pool right by the viewing window. Finally there is a large, foliage-packed aviary that contained a single turkey vulture. I believe bald eagles are found in this habitat too, and are labeled as such according to the map, but I didn’t any. This trail is fairly decent overall, but I feel it could also benefit from having a few more exhibits and species added. The last habitat, while not with the rest of the enclosures, is still categorized as being part of this complex on the map; ring-tailed lemurs and radiated tortoises reside in this mesh-enclosed area, and it is a nice size, packed with foliage and climbing opportunities. Plains – Of the exhibit complexes on offer in Indy, this was easily my favorite one, with a great immersive feel and several big-name animals, many of which are in habitats that are excellent in quality. After walking under the train bridge past some African-stylized statues, a gorgeous savannah greets visitors. The entire trail surrounds this exhibit, with numerous vantage points throughout providing different angles such as across a waterhole. Greater kudu (including a few-weeks-old calf), ostrich, plains zebra (in a separate enclosure), Ruppell’s griffon vulture, wildebeest (didn’t see), and marabou stork share this large, hilly exhibit, which is packed with grass and dotted with shady trees. Winding past some tall grasses, the next enclosure also includes a mix of species, this time for reticulated giraffe and Addra gazelle. It is similar in design to the previously described savannah, except with a more narrow shape and a giraffe feeding deck on one end. A trio of white rhinos is next-door, and they have a decent exhibit with a mud hole. The greatest element here though is the viewing; not only can the rhinos be seen via overlook, but one can cross a rickety bridge to a shelter that is planted in the middle of the habitat! Only wire cables separate visitors from animals, and the close-up views are phenomenal – close enough to hear the occasional grunt. Nearby there is a lion exhibit that has a variety of viewing options (through expansive windows and wire), but is just average in size and looks. A troop of Guinea baboons can be found around the corner, and also have, in my opinion, one of the less successful exhibits in this complex. The plentiful large boulders to clamber around on are impressive, but viewing is only through mesh and the boulders make the exhibit look quite small. Across the pathway is the newest attraction to hit the Indianapolis Zoo: “Tembo Camp,” an extension of the Zoo’s African elephant habitat. There isn’t a lot in terms of space to this expansion, however it’s the details that make it stand out, from the demo yard (where I saw one of the cows, Ivory, participate in positive reinforcement training) that allows for awesome close views, to the hilly terrain that has plentiful grass, shady trees, and even a walking trail that connects to the older exhibits. Speaking of which, the world’s largest land animals have a great home here. The large main enclosure has lush, green hills that almost blend into the background, a number of trees that are protected by wire (a bit too prominent I’ll admit), and a very scenic waterfall that splashes into a huge deep pool; the adjacent smaller exhibit is nice as well with another pool and mud bank walls containing the pachyderms. Nitpicks aside, this to me is easily one of the best elephant exhibits to be found in the Midwest. Nearby is “Cheetah: The Race for Survival,” a new complex for the fastest land animal that opened in 2010. There are two cheetah habitats with two cats in each (a pair of brothers, and two sisters), and they are very nice with big hills to navigate and some lush foliage for furnishings. One additional feature is “Race-a-Cheetah,” an interactive station where visitors can compete against a running light that equals the speed of a cheetah. It was closed at the time of my visit, but I can see this being quite popular with crowds. After this, a trio of birds (helmeted guineafowl, yellow-billed hornbill, and African crowned crane) can be found together in a mid-sized aviary, and the complex finishes off with a small mixed-species exhibit for warthog and Cape porcupine. Flights of Fancy – Birds are the stars of this complex, which opened in 2012. A small flamingo pool (Caribbean and Chilean) is the first exhibit to be seen, along with an adjacent grassy area where guests can have up-close experiences with them. One can either participate in feedings, or watch as the elegant birds parade past in a flamingo walk. It could be because this complex also doubles as the children’s area, but I do admire Indy for going the extra mile in presenting flamingoes in an interactive way unlike other zoos I’ve seen before. Nearby is a Southern ground hornbill aviary that is average in both size and quality for the two birds on display. Lastly, there are three walkthrough aviaries that are situated next to or adjacent to each other. All of them have a wood chip substrate, a few tall trees, and a good amount of space to fly and get away for some privacy. The first contains cockatiels and budgies; the second exhibit houses several types of lorikeets (including a red one that had quite the personality when I was walking through); and the final aviary was home to Cabot’s tragopan, crested coua, green woodhoopoe, guineafowl (helmeted and vulturine), Northern bobwhite, Eastern yellow-billed hornbill, crested wood partridge, taveta golden weaver, superb starling, white-cheeked turaco, and even two rock hyraxes. I don’t recall seeing or hearing about any walkthrough enclosures with hyraxes, so this stuck out as a pretty cool part of this area. International Orangutan Center – Both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans (11 of them according to the Zoo’s website!) reside in what appears to be one of the largest orangutan complexes in the country. Since its debut in 2014, several opinions have been thrown around with some praising the extensive opportunities for brachiating and displaying natural orang behavior, while others wished for a more naturalistic Asian rainforest display. Having finally seen it for myself, I can definitely see both sides of the argument. It is true that there is no sense of a naturalistic environment portrayed here, with the only outdoor enclosures being a patch of grass surrounded by gray concrete on two sides of the building. The gargantuan holding building itself has a neat design and is architecturally stunning, but again does not seem to evoke something from an orangutan’s wild habitat – the most common and notorious of these comparisons I’ve heard is a large-scale church. In addition, all four indoor exhibits (the large main room, a training room, and a couple tiny rooms attached to the tower bases) are primarily concrete. There are some additional elements to the former two, which will be described in a bit, but the latter two have little to help keep the apes occupied. On the other hand, it does cater to some of the apes’ most significant behaviors – brachiating, swinging, and climbing. This is done through the many towers and rope trails that surround the entire complex. Of the times I walked past, I saw one orang incredibly high up in one of the towers, and it was a cool site to see. Unfortunately, I never saw them swing out over the crowds, but I imagine this inspires awes from the onlookers when that does occur. The main indoor exhibit, while in need of a naturalistic boost, also does great in providing several ropes and great height to utilize. Several enrichment items and hay substrate are scattered all around as well. Another successful component is the educational features. Tons of signs and kiosks can be found all over the guest viewing areas, from the interactive kids features, to a huge map that covers several examples of an orangutan’s social life and travel (this one stood out the most to me), to how the apes learn through training or observation. The latter example can also seen in some demonstrations in the separate indoor “training room,” where a female was resting on my visit. It’s a tough call overall with how to categorize this complex because there are many aspects that it gets right, but the limited amount of naturalism is sorely noticeable. For now, I’m going to sit in the middle of both parties when it comes to giving out opinions. As stated before, it has the right components and ambition, however the execution could be something greater. MISTery Park – This is technically part of the Forests complex according to the map. However, because it is often advertised as its own thing (same goes for the International Orangutan Center) and is situated off that main trail, I thought I’d put it in its own section. After walking underneath a large sign with a neat leafy design, the trail pushes through some lush tropical foliage with the occasional misters, before coming across a pair of connected climbing trees for two-toed sloths. The sloths are the only species in this area, with eight of them currently in residence. Only one female was out on my visit dozing in a hammock, and was told that the slow-moving creatures are usually rotated time on-display and behind-the-scenes. Having an area dedicated to sloths is admittedly interesting, but it probably would’ve done better to either have a few more species, or to fill in some space in the main Forests zone. Deserts – A small dome building that focuses on the arid regions of the world. Similar to the one at the North Carolina Zoo, the first part that greets visitors is an open-air room with reptile exhibits that are gazed down upon, and the path winding through canyon-like rock structures. These enclosures are overall nice, with a sandy and rocky mix of terrain, and desert plants that dot the landscape. Some are narrow, while others are quite massive in size. Some of the species (some of which I didn’t see) include African plated lizard, blue-tongued skink, bearded dragon, Grand Cayman blue iguana, rhinoceros iguana, Colorado river toad, radiated tortoise, northern spider tortoise, Egyptian tortoise, Australian snake-necked tortoise, and quail (the only non-herp species to be found in these exhibits). The only other warm-blooded animals on display are the Zoo’s mob of meerkats, which occupy a pair of sandy habitats that are small, but do include a nice bonus in the form of an underground viewing section. The second portion of the building consists of “Size, Speed, & Venom: Extreme Snakes,” a snake-dominated section that occupies two hallways. One is darkened and contains a row of tiny terrariums for species such as gila monster, Brazilian rainbow boa, cape cobra, eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Santa Catalina island rattlesnake, eastern green mamba, and eyelash tree viper. The other hallway has a few exhibits that are more successful in terms of size and naturalistic elements. They contain the “big-ticket” reptiles that were advertised when the hall debuted in 2019, which are black mamba, reticulated python, Burmese python (both a normal color and albino variation were on-exhibit), and a trio of Indiana natives – timber rattlesnake, copperhead, and cottonmouth. It is smaller and more limited than the desert found in North Carolina, but it is a neat little diversion that I’m sure will leave reptile fans satisfied; and I also look forward to seeing the gargantuan Desert Dome in Omaha next month for comparison (minor spoiler of what’s to come ). Oceans – This structure has stood since the Zoo opened in its current location in the 1980’s; however it was renovated and reopened in May 2007. California sea lion and gray seal reside in a mid-sized pool that is not only the first to be seen in this complex, but is also the Zoo’s very first impression. Two more outdoor exhibits can be found here as well: one is a pair of walruses in a nice exhibit with solid underwater viewing opportunities. Secondly, a troop of crab-eating macaques (or long-tailed macaque as the Zoo classifies them) resides in what was once a polar bear exhibit. After viewing this species at the DeYoung and Special Memories Zoos, it was a breath of fresh-air to see the monkeys in a big habitat with a blend of mulch, rocks, plants, a few wooden climbing structures and huts, and a waterfall that trickles into a deep pool with underwater viewing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but are these the only ones in an AZA zoo? If so, I am curious about the future of this species and a possible SSP. Nearby is a large structure dedicated to the bottlenose dolphin. Based on what I overheard from visitors, the dolphin show is almost a “must” when visiting the Indy Zoo; I sadly missed out on this due to already being sold out upon my arrival – maybe next time! The dolphin pool itself is similar to Brookfield’s Seven Seas, in which it is a large pool meant to reflect the open ocean. What gives Indy the edge, though, is what can be found beneath the water’s surface. In 2005, for the first time in the world, cetaceans could be seen swimming all-around visitors with the “Dolphin Adventure Dome.” I went in here twice on my visit: once was during a show, and the other before exploring the rest of the Oceans near the end of the day. It’s pretty cool to get several views and angles of the dolphins, especially as they cruise above the dome or while splashing through the water during a show. Heading into the large primary building, there is signage galore about the wonders and mysteries of the sea, as a descending ramp surrounds a penguin fountain, before a trio of tanks greets visitors. These tanks are well done as they are large and have many neat corals and rocks. One contains smooth dogfish sharks and rays (cownose and Southern) as the highlights; next-door is a colorful array of fish like angelfish and green moray eel; and the last tank before going into the next room is for at least four lionfish. Up next is one of the largest touch pools that can be found in the nation, where more smooth dogfish sharks and (recently added) cownose rays can be found. Many posters also take up the walls in here, this time pertaining to sharks. These include how the predatory fish got their misunderstood reputations, details on some of the nearly 400 species that prowl the waters, and even a “shark hall of fame.” Then, there is a small hallway with several small aquatic species, including pot-bellied sea horses and tangs in cylinder tanks, numerous smaller tanks set in the wall, and a coral reef tank with species such as clownfish. The finale of this building was my favorite part: on each side of the hallway there are two different penguin habitats (home to king, Gentoo, and rockhopper), one being a decent size, and the other more on the small side. Both of these are of decent quality with various rocky crags and deep pools, but the standout element is a glass floor panel where one can see the aquatic birds swimming. There were several times that I watched the penguins zoom from one exhibit to the other – right beneath my feet! Although this complex was a bit smaller than I anticipated, the creative parts and number of unique species made up for it to make a memorable splash on my visit. White River Gardens – This is a conservatory that is technically not part of the Zoo. However, it is included with admission and I checked it out after touring the rest of the facility, so why not include it in the review? The primary feature is an enormous jungle-like atmosphere for several species of butterflies, which can be seen on two floors. Walking amongst the pretty insects and lush greenery made for a relaxing way to spend some time after walking around the main Zoo in the heat. Heading outside are the gardens that add an almost peaceful mood. There are several different pathways that take one past many fountains and plants, from a small patch of cacti, to a half-ring of frogs spewing water, to a few specific types of gardens such an asymmetrical garden and city garden. The only other section here, which I accidentally missed, is the “Family Nature Center” that contains hellbenders. Visitor Experiences Indy is on the smaller to medium scale in terms of major zoos at about 64 acres, most of which is flat apart from a few small ascents and declines in certain sections. The property has a rather linear layout, with the small open-air entrance plaza situated at one end, a primary pathway that acts as a sort of spine, and the majority of the Zoo’s exhibits branching out and looping back to the main path – similar to Fort Worth. In addition, the facility consists of a nice blend of nature and modern architecture. The nature component has certain selections that suit a particular section well, whether that is peeking around the tall grasses in the Plains, or trekking through the bamboo and deciduous woodlands of the Forests. When it comes to the architecture, most of it is relatively modern as the Zoo opened in its present location in 1988, and is quite impressive to behold (I feel the same way about the city of Indianapolis itself too). Examples of older buildings include the two main Oceans buildings, especially the tall, slanted blue structure for the dolphins that can be seen from the highway; the newer pieces of construction can be found with the “Bicentennial Pavilion” and the International Orangutan Center, which is also visible from afar. The Zoo’s amenities are spread out pretty well for the most part, with four eateries, a couple of gift shops, and restrooms scattered throughout the establishment. Next, some other non-animal attractions include a train that circles the Plains, the “Kombo Coaster” that gives the Zoo a small theme park dose, a carousel situated right outside Flights of Fancy, and, last but certainly not least, the “Skyline” gondola that circles the entire International Orangutan Center. I originally planned to take a ride, but no orangs were swinging along at the time. I can imagine it being an amazing sight to see the apes at the same mid-air level, along with some awesome views of the city beyond. I already mentioned a couple animal demonstrations/shows with the elephants, flamingoes, and dolphins, however many more species have a moment in the spotlight with their own keeper chats as well, with one worth mentioning taking place at the gorgeous “Bicentennial Pavilion,” starring different types of birds a few times a day. At one point, I watched as keepers introduced a hornbill take flight, a chicken complete an obstacle course for operant conditioning, and finally a sea of colors filled the sky as several macaws flew towards the Pavilion, circling, and finally perching on stage. It was truly a wondrous sight! HIGHLIGHT OF THE DAY: The walruses were perhaps the coolest part of my visit. These were the first ones I have seen since SeaWorld Orlando (way back in 2008), and it was a real treat to see the tusked pinnipeds again. The young male and female spent most of their time rolling through the water, playing with an enrichment block, and spending lots of time by the underwater viewing. They certainly seemed to enjoy hamming it up at the windows, bobbing up and down in the water, and sometimes lingering beneath the surface. It made for some great photo opportunities! Overall: Along the same lines as Nashville and Atlanta, the Indianapolis Zoo fits into the category of “small but mighty” amongst the major U.S. zoos. This is an enjoyable establishment that offers a well-balanced animal collection, a wide variety of further attractions to entertain crowds, and exhibitry that is overall fairly impressive. It even provides a few things that are out of the norm with a few species that can’t be found at many other facilities, and some exhibit elements in terms of design and interaction; it’s always nice to see a zoo go the extra mile to stand out amongst the rest. With these elements in mind, I would recommend Indy to both casual and hardcore zoo fans alike; I’d also consider this a very good “family zoo,” especially since it is also not too overwhelmingly big. It is a worthwhile facility that may not have it in quantity, but certainly has a nice amount of quality and uniqueness to it. I am not aware of any plans for the short-term future. However, I have read that Indy is looking at acquiring a large amount of land nearby, using it for parking. This would then free up the current parking lot for additional use such as more animal exhibits.