This year's vacation saw me return to the state of Tennessee; the last time was in 2013 when I took a trip to the Smokey Mountain region. This time around, I went to Nashville for a few days, followed by another couple days in Memphis. Nashville consisted of a concert and behind-the-scenes tour of the Grand Ole Opry, Johnny Cash Museum, and touring seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson's estate (sorry - no Nashville Zoo, maybe next time). I also did eat at the Aquarium Restaurant, and will post a brief opinion on that establishment later. Memphis involved a day of touring Graceland, the enormous property of Elvis Presley, and a day at the Memphis Zoo. Review of the Memphis Zoo Memphis Zoo The Memphis Zoo is situated on 76 acres of Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee. It all started when a black bear, named Natch, was given to the Zoo in April 1906. Through the years, several historic buildings and exhibits were constructed; some like the 1959 Aquarium still remain in their original use, others were converted for other uses such as 1909’s Carnivora Building into a restaurant, or the original sea lion pool being converted for pelicans. Memphis also gained fame as the “Hippo Capital of the World,” thanks to its prolific hippo breeding – a male named Adonis alone sired 25 offspring! Presently, the Zoo is 500 species strong consisting of 3,500 specimens. It also is nearly finished fulfilling a Master Plan that originally started in 1989, resulting in many well-known complexes like Teton Trek, China, Cat Country, and of course, the brand-new Zambezi River Hippo Camp. I’m happy to say that, for the most part, the hard work through those years has paid off. While I was expecting a little better in terms of exhibit quality, the good habitats outweigh the bad ones, and the attention to details and sense of immersion is stellar in some parts. Cat Country – The Memphis Zoo’s road to modernism began when this complex opened in 1993. The primary viewing area for the first habitat, home to African lion, can actually be seen from the main pathway. It’s a nice first impression exhibit, with a deep-water moat, tall grass, a few light-colored rocks, and even a couple small trees. It probably could’ve been a little bigger in size, but it’s still fine. Visitors enter the area through an Egyptian-inspired archway that also serves as a shaded viewing area for two exhibits through harp wire. On the right is the previously described lion habitat, while on the left is a decent fishing cat exhibit. Down the trail is an open tiger habitat with a ruined temple wall and two viewing areas – a glass window and an open view over a large water moat. There was signage for both Bengal and Sumatran tigers, so I imagine the two subspecies must rotate; there were three Bengals (interestingly each with a different color variant – regular, white, and my first ever golden) on display when I was there. The path begins to ascend up a boardwalk with visitors now being at mid-height view of the exhibits, and the display animals soon begin to center around those that climb or are found in higher locations (a nice touch!). Two similar looking exhibits for a leopard (species not specified) and a black jaguar are the first to be seen; they are viewed through harp wire, have rocky ledges and logs, and both on the small side. Across the deck is a spacious red panda habitat that allows the critters to run (pretty neat to see) and even access the trees via their climbing platforms. An oriental-style bridge is crossed to reach the next set of exhibits, but not before veering off to a cave area to view the jaguar and cougars – so cool! As soon as the bridge is crossed, the main viewing area for the nice cougar habitat is seen. This is followed by a snow leopard enclosure of average size and quality, a shady area for capybara and crested screamer, and a good-sized ocelot exhibit with a running stream. A pair of caracals is the next cat species housed here, and they have a slightly small area with a small tree (in which one of the cats was resting in) that is viewed through harp wire. There are even opportunities to view the cheetahs through the back of the exhibit. Speaking of which, the pair of speedy predators have a very lush mid-sized habitat. Finally, meerkats live across the path in a well-sized habitat with plenty of dirt and tunnels, and even a small grassy area in the back section. Apart from a few minor issues with exhibit size, I give this feline complex a thumbs-up, and definitely consider this one of the highlights of the Zoo. Tropical Bird House – Before heading into the building, a trio of aviaries for toco toucan and azure-winged magpie can be seen. Other than a big walkthrough jungle aviary (with species like black-necked stilt) and a single free flight area (housing Mariana fruit dove, white throated ground dove, purple throated fruit crow, Jambu fruit dove, and pied imperial pigeon), all of the bird exhibits are glass-fronted terrariums with some fake rockwork and plantings. Just some of the bird species housed in these exhibits include: red-billed hornbill, African pygmy falcon*, Von der Decken’s hornbill, hooded pitta*, burrowing owl, red crested cardinal*, Bali mynah, blue crowned hanging parrot*, tinian monarch, golden white-eye, plush crested jay*, kookaburra, and white-crested laughing thrush. The best part of this building was seeing several cool species for the first time ever – those are marked with an asterisk. To be honest, I was actually pleasantly surprised by this birdhouse – I would still consider it average, but it was better than I anticipated. Penguin Rock – African penguins live on a rocky island that, according to this site, has housed mountainous hoofstock such as aoudad in the past. It may be old and not the most natural looking, but the area is quite large and still works okay for the popular aquatic birds in my opinion. On a side note, a few individuals were almost entirely black in color – that was interesting to see. Round Barn – In 1923, the Zoo acquired this building from the Memphis Police Department, which had originally used it for horse stables, and has been home to several types of hoofstock and birds since. The exhibit size and quality overall is average, with about half of them being open-viewed, and others through chain-link. The exhibits present here are for: red river hog, crane (unsigned, but looked like common crane – another first), gerenuk, crowned crane, dik-dik/muntjac, addra gazelle/Abyssinian ground hornbill, klipspringer, and warthog (didn’t see). Aquarium – A brick building that opened in the 1950’s. I thought this was one of the weaker areas of the Zoo, with an amateurish design in the first room, and a very dark main room. Some of the larger tanks worked fine (weedy sea dragon, piranha, jellies), while others were quite tiny and not much different than ones that could be seen in a pet store (blind cavefish, small turtle species, etc.). Some of the highlight species here are blind cavefish, lionfish, green moray eel, Nile softshell turtle, red-bellied piranha, alligator snapping turtle, moon jellyfish, weedy sea dragon (another first), and tentacled snake. Dragon’s Lair – The stars of this small 1998 complex are a trio of Komodo dragons. The indoor viewing area was locked on my visit, but the three glass-fronted outdoor habitats were each occupied by one lizard. One habitat is a bit cramped, but the other two are fairly spacious, and all are packed with grass, rocks, small trees, and a pool. Prior to exiting, a row of small tortoise pens houses the following species: African spurred, leopard, and Aldabra. Herpetarium – Originally this building opened its doors in 1969, but just reopened earlier this year after a three month long renovation. Other than a trio of tiny grottoes for alligator snapping turtle, American alligator, and West African dwarf crocodile, the reptiles all live in terrariums viewed through glass. Some are quite large and decent in quality, while others are very small. Other notable species housed here include: Burmese python, king cobra, green iguana, a gigantic reticulated python, Pakistani pond turtle (another first), Philippine sailfin dragon (another first, and an incredibly fascinating species I must say!), Komodo dragon (two juvenile females), Mangshan mountain viper (another first), a quite active crocodile monitor, prehensile-tail skink, and many more. Zambezi River Hippo Camp – The Zoo’s newest complex, which only just opened this April. The journey begins with an area for flamingoes consisting of a shallow pond and a sandy beach. At the moment both Chilean and lesser flamingoes live here, but the plan is to eventually have a flock of entirely lesser flamingoes. Next is a solid habitat for patas monkeys. With the exception of one window view inside an African hut, it is entirely seen through mesh. The energetic primates have some large logs to clamber over, a shaded area, and lots of grass. The pathway leads past a stream lined with trees, bushes, and even an African canoe on the shore. After passing an African tour jeep, a pair of hoofstock habitats is seen – one is for a male okapi and yellow-backed duiker (didn’t see), and the other for nyala and marabou stork. Both are spacious and grassy, but could use more foliage and it is unfortunate that they can only be seen from one mesh-fronted viewing area. Nearby is a small unique play area with African drums, and the first glimpse of the stars of Zambezi. Cable fences separate visitors from a trio of Nile hippopotamus (one male and two females) on a land area that is larger than most hippo exhibits I’ve seen – here it is a blend of concrete and sand with even a couple of small trees. Then, the trail begins to slope down to catch a glimpse of the awesome river horses glide under the water’s surface. Something I noted here was the cool design of the habitat – the pool seems very big, and it is, but at the same time it seems to also balance out with the amount of land space as well. For me, this hippo habitat is among the three best hippo habitats I’ve seen along with San Diego and Disney. Another huge African style hut is seen, and it allows for visitors to go up a flight of stairs to view the hippos and the next-door Nile crocodile habitat from above. Speaking of crocodiles, they have a fantastic habitat with a deep pool (also with large underwater viewing windows), a sandy beach, and a plethora of plants in the center land area. A path towards a walkthrough aviary featuring species like blue-bellied roller, taveta weaver, and Cape vulture (in their own small exhibit) serves as the last animal habitat before viewing the crocs one last time. Primate Canyon – This complex opened in 1995, and houses most of the Zoo’s apes and monkeys, all in habitats surrounded by rocky walls. Sumatran orangutans (including a cute 4-month-old baby) start the area off, living in a very good exhibit that is one of the larger ones I’ve seen for the red apes. Across the path is a habitat for lion-tailed macaque (didn’t see) consisting of a water moat, lots of vegetation, and even an oriental-style night house building. Around the corner, a pair of siamangs has the best habitat here with an island full of lush plants and other climbing ropes and structures, along with a hilly, grassy gorilla habitat with a pair of wooden climbing structures, similar to what can be seen at San Diego Safari Park. The complex finishes off with two tall habitats with a decent amount of climbing opportunities, ranging from the rocky walls to logs arranged into climbing structures, for colobus monkey and spot-nosed guenon. Surprisingly, the whole area reminded me of the Ape Walk area back in Rio Grande Zoo, with Memphis’ area edging out Rio Grande. China – In 2003, Memphis became one of four zoos in the country to house the endangered giant panda when the China complex opened. The attention to detail here is unbelievable – almost like something you’d see in Disney World’s Epcot. Grand lion statues and a pagoda tower that touches the clouds greet you, and the gathering temple area consisting of a huge bell and oriental-like walls is also superb. After viewing a short movie about Chinese conservation, the journey starts with a very pretty, scenic pond area for waterfowl such as mandarin duck. Up next is the infamous habitat home to Asian small-clawed otters and white-cheeked gibbons. Both animals were off-exhibit as the area is undergoing maintenance, but from what I could tell it looked to be a hit-and-miss exhibit. It shows promise as the otters have a great, refreshing, deep pond to swim in, and the gibbons have a small structure to show off their acrobatic abilities; but there definitely needs to be more vegetation, swings, and other details to make for a more natural habitat for both species, along with hiding the obvious (but stunning) oriental walls in the background. This is followed by the stars of the complex, and arguably the entire Zoo – Le Le and Ya Ya the giant pandas. I’ve seen two other giant panda areas in my life – Smithsonian and San Diego, and after seeing Memphis’, I’d place it in the middle of the two. It in no way matches the gargantuan forests that D.C. has created, but I found it to be better than the small dirt yards I saw in San Diego. Strangely, the outdoor habitat for such an iconic (and expensive) animal is only average; it seems more like a modern-day bear grotto, with a rocky wall (but at least mostly obscured by tall bushes), two tiers with short grass, a small pool, a wooden climbing structure with a net, and a long line of glass windows that look into the black-and-white bears’ home. A covered cobblestone path then looks into a pair of decent indoor rooms, with one panda in each during my visit. After the pandas, an average size and quality glass-fronted exhibit for Francois langur can be seen, followed by a small loop detailing Marco Polo’s expedition, and it contains some fascinating information. Going back to the animal exhibits, Pere David’s deer and white-naped crane share a decent, shaded exhibit, and an average-sized aviary for Lady Amherst’s and Reeve’s pheasants serves as the animal exhibit finale before the complex wraps up with a gift shop. On the whole, China is a decent complex with some spectacular immersive details, but needs improvements to some of its exhibits to be truly fantastic. African Veldt – Popular African megafauna are housed here, but unfortunately they live in mainly weak quality exhibits. To start out, a trio of female African elephants lives in a pair of small dusty paddocks viewed through cable fencing with a tiny concrete barn. The only positive element here is a colossal swimming pool that must be a relief from the hot Memphis sun. There is also a third sandy paddock for white rhinoceros; at the time of my visit, the rhinos were off-display and the elephants had access to the whole area, which to be fair is nice enrichment and an occasional chance for more space. The only good habitat here is a huge tree-filled one inhabited by bongo, Grant’s gazelle, and ostrich. The remaining enclosures are a chain-link yard for crowned crane, and mostly barren enclosures housing: giraffe (with a feeding deck), bontebok, and a mixed-species area for zebra and scimitar-horned oryx. Northwest Passage – A coastal-themed exhibit area that was unveiled to the public in 2006. Magnificent totem poles are the first thing one sees upon arrival before viewing the animals. Polar bears are first up, and there is a brief dead-end pathway that overlooks the habitat. The largest bear species have a medium-sized habitat to roam that, while mainly light brown fake rock, has a good-sized pool and various enrichment items like logs, a branch, and even a woodchip pile for digging. The main path continues into a large building that provides underwater views the bears, along with an area for California sea lions (with a nearby amphitheater for shows). Upon exiting the building, a good-sized aviary for three bald eagles and a raven can seen; this is for me the best exhibit here, with great height and plenty of perches and vegetation. American black bears are next, and they have an average, grassy exhibit that is surrounded by large rock walls. Some Inuit style scenery such as a canoe and paintings on wooden walls next to the pathway is then seen, followed by one last viewing area of the previously mentioned aviary, and then the final section, which is a tranquil, shaded memorial garden dedicated to Chief Seattle. Teton Trek – Located next-door to Northwest Passage, this is a Yellowstone-themed complex that opened in October 2009. Most of the Zoo’s recent immersive complexes have an architectural piece that dominates the landscape, and Teton Trek is no different. In this case, an amazing replica of the Old Faithful Inn (which apparently holds special events) greets visitors, followed by a refreshing splash area, and then the trail marking the beginning of the complex. Something interesting to note about these exhibits is that they all are set-up so the creatures can easily see each other; for example, bears can look through pole fencing at wolves, which in turn can also see elk through the chain-link beneath the boardwalk. The first animals here are four gray wolves, which have a surprisingly narrow habitat, but it is packed with thick grass, a few large rocks, and a couple trees. Up next is the largest grizzly bear habitat I’ve ever seen, complete with long grass, a couple small trees, a thundering waterfall, and a stream that winds into a pool with underwater viewing. It is a rather open exhibit like the wolf area, but to be fair this is a complex that represents Yellowstone National Park, so it makes sense as the park itself is a rather open environment. After passing a shaded viewing area that gives an underwater look at the pond, the adventure continues up a boardwalk that almost surrounds the rest of the grizzly habitat. A replica of a fire lookout tower is passed, followed by a pretty waterfowl lagoon (featuring trumpeter swans, sandhill crane, and teals), the top of the waterfall, an overhead view of the wolf habitat, and finally a habitat for elk. The majestic deer (one bull and four cows that were pretty active) have a decent sized area, a big pond, and some tall trees throughout, providing a pretty-looking open woodland setting. Upon finishing the boardwalk, one last view of the wolves (through mesh) is seen before leaving the complex. Teton Trek was probably my favorite area of Memphis because the quality and detail here is quite high. Other Exhibits – Windows in one of the Zoo’s restaurants, Cat House Café, look into an exhibit for energetic white-cheeked gibbons that, while surrounded by fake rockwork, is filled with vegetation, a waterfall, and a decent amount of climbing opportunities. Near the penguins is a very old, but shaded and roomy American white pelican pool (originally a sea lion exhibit). Across from the China complex, there is a bonobo habitat that in my opinion is surprisingly underwhelming. The outdoor exhibit is almost grotto-like – completely surrounded by fake rock, with only one small climbing structure and grass; the indoor room is sadly not the greatest either with only a few wooden beams for climbing and no real natural appearance. Finally, behind the former hippo area are two average aviaries for milky eagle owl and yellow-casqued hornbill (another first). NOTE: For some reason the nocturnal building, Animals of the Night, was closed for the day. So I unfortunately missed out on it. I also didn’t see the Once Upon a Farm area. HIGHLIGHT OF THE DAY: Seeing giant pandas is always a thrill. But it’s all the more special when one has an up-close experience with them! Male Le Le was fast asleep by the door of his room, while female Ya Ya was in her room chowing on some bamboo. After a while she strolled over by the window and rolled over on her back by the glass, took a brief rest, and then went on to wander by her door before finally slumping over one of the fake rocks. It was cool to be so close to a briefly active panda and get a closer observation of the charismatic bears – they’re actually smaller than I expected! I thought they’d be more of a black bear size. Overall: While the Memphis Zoo may not be among the elite zoos of the U.S. such as San Diego or Columbus, I can definitely see it being among the second tier of zoos. In fact, it strongly reminded me of Brookfield Zoo; both have great animal collections found in immersive-style complexes, along with exhibit that is overall pretty good, but a little lacking in some places. The best three areas here are Cat Country, Teton Trek, and Zambezi River Hippo Camp, while the rest varies from solid to average to poor. It’s a very good, solid zoo that I’d like to return to someday; I definitely would recommend it. The Zoo has one remaining project in its Master Plan dating back to the late 1980’s. This final area, called “Chickasaw Bluffs,” doesn’t have any animal exhibits involved, rather a very long boardwalk that winds through a forest with informative signs about native plants and forest conservation. For me, the Memphis Zoo is ranked at #7; that is between Brookfield Zoo (#6) and Minnesota Zoo (#8).