North Carolina Zoo Review Date of Latest Visit: May 9, 2015 The North Carolina Zoo has a special place in my heart because I visited by complete surprise on a road trip when I was nine years old and my Dad and I had the entire zoo to ourselves. I have been back a couple of times the latest being last year and still think it is one of the very best in America. It is a hard zoo to rate because it only features animals from two continents but almost everything in the zoo is brilliant and the amount of space given to most animals is amazing. The zoo is located in the middle-of-nowhere North Carolina and in many cases it feels as if the animals are just roaming in the wilderness. Excellent Watani Grasslands- The zoo’s signature exhibit and the best pachyderm habitats I’ve ever seen. An unbelievably massive 37-acre grasslands houses white rhinoceros, greater kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, fringe-eared oryx, waterbuck, gemsbok, dama gazelle, Nile lechwe, bongo, sitatunga, blesbok and ostrich. The only problem with this exhibit is that it’s so huge it is hard to see all the species of antelope, especially without using one of the telescopes. It basically is an endless sea of grass with a forest backdrop and an enormous lake in the back. A few sparse trees provide shade and there are brilliant wallows for the rhinos to roll around in and cool off. The occasional termite mound can be found and the grass is surprisingly green and lively for such an exhibit with so many species. Next door is for the money the best elephant exhibit in the nation. A herd of six African elephants roams the seven acre grassy landscape and after repeat visits the habitat still continues to blow me away. The elephants look like they are in the same habitat as the rhinos and antelope since invisible moats are all that separates them. As with the plains, the grass holds up quite well and it’s refreshing to see such a well-planted pachyderm exhibits. Several watering holes with brilliant rockwork and immense amounts of waters are both great for the elephants by providing them the opportunity to swim and cool down and great for the visitors because they allow them to get relatively close to the elephants. A few tall trees dot the landscape and instead of dividing up the elephants into multiple yards they all have one gargantuan grasslands just to themselves. The use of mud and natural backdrops is brilliant and realistic enrichments are abundant. While Dallas, Sedgwick, Omaha, Fresno, Indianapolis, SDWAP, DAK, Denver, Saint Louis, Oregon, Los Angeles, Cheyenne Mountain, Kansas City, etc. all have great elephant exhibits none live up to the scope and excellence of this one. North American Prairie- This 11 acre grasslands is almost as impressive as Watani Grasslands. Herds of bison and elk roam on the expansive plains that really look as if they could be in Yellowstone National Park and not in a zoo. The habitat is viewed from multiple viewpoints and all the backdrops are 100% natural. A few trees are congregated in the back but mostly its just a giant sea of grass with a hill in the middle. Absolutely brilliant. Kitera Forest Chimpanzee Reserve- At an acre large, probably the best chimpanzee exhibit I have ever seen. A troop of about 20 chimps live in the spacious lush and heavily vegetated exhibit and it has no shortage of opportunities for enrichment and natural behavior. The knocked over trees, varying length of grass, realistic climbing structures, dense undergrowth, amazing buttress tree which is perfect for climbing and brilliant viewing windows make this an absolute state-of-the-art wonder to behold. Rocky Coast- The complex starts out with an exhibit for harbor seals and sea lions that is good but not state-of-the-art. There is a good amount of mock rock but it is better than at many other zoos and there are good places for the pinnipeds to lay on. There is a shade structure in the back and underwater viewing. Puffins have a very nice indoor exhibit with underwater viewing. A netted Arctic fox exhibit is larger and better than many. The keystone of the area though is the polar bear exhibit, which is the third best I have seen (after Detroit and Columbus.) The original part of the exhibit is much like the pinniped exhibit with a great pool but lots of mock rock. However, the exhibit takes off in the expanded area, which has tons of grass, an amazing den, a nice pool with plenty of enrichments, great natural backdrops and probably contains more trees than any other polar bear exhibit around. Another winner for North Carolina. Forest Edge- One of the best giraffe and zebra exhibits I have ever seen. Instead of going for the standard savanna, this habitat replicates a clearing in an African woodland. It is beautifully green and has plenty of trees for the giraffes to browse off of. A few termite mounds and rocks can be found, a stream runs through the habitat and it is very hard to see the edges of the exhibit. Amazingly, this exhibit was built in 1979 but is still state-of-the-art today. Black Bear/Red Wolf Habitats- Black bears have an excellent exhibit with a stream and mock-rock in the front and an extensive forest in the background. There are so many trees and the bears should have no problem hiding and climbing if they so please. Red wolves have a well-shaded habitat with plenty of trees and space. Baboon Exhibit- An enormous group of Hamdryas baboons live in a rocky habitat with tons of space and creates the illusion of being in an Ethiopian highland. It is the second best baboon exhibit I have seen after Bronx. Lemur Island- Once home to Patas monkeys, ring-tailed and red ruffed lemurs reside on one of the lushest and largest primate islands I have ever seen. Forest Glade- This gorilla exhibit is quite good but not quite as impressive as more well-known gorilla exhibits. It is decently sized, medium in level of vegetation and has a few tall trees. Rock backdrops from the edges of the exhibit and it has recently been slightly renovated. Cypress Swamp- Alligators live in a solid swamp that suits them well. Cougars live in a netted exhibit that is the best I have seen for the cats alongside Columbus. A log has a nice cave for them to rest and the amount of trees, space and shade is admirable. Red River Hogs- Live in a decent exhibit that once housed warthogs. A forest of trees provides a great backdrop and I appreciate the mix of terrain. Sonora Desert- Very good desert building with a recently opened outdoor ocelot exhibit. Reynolds Aviary- One of the best aviaries in the country. Average Grizzly Bear Exhibit- Larger than many other grizzly exhibits but has too much mock rock for my liking. Streamside- Its cornerstone is an otter exhibit that is solid but not as impressive as other otter exhibits. Bobcats live in a habitat that is average at best. Lion Exhibit- A rocky average habitat that is decent but probably the weakest part of Africa. It just isn’t as naturalistic as other lion exhibits and doesn’t bring the guests close enough. While more specialized than a lot of city zoos, North Carolina Zoo is very impressive and a true marvel. Of the zoos I’ve been to, it probably has the least wrong with it and it was hard to point out anything in the zoo that was just average. North Carolina is a lock for top ten zoos in the nation and arguably top five.