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Franklin Park Zoo Put Me In The Zoo Review: Franklin Park Zoo in Boston

Discussion in 'United States' started by DavidBrown, 1 Jul 2016.

  1. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Moderator Staff Member

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    Put Me In The Zoo: Franklin Park Zoo Review

    The Franklin Park Zoo is in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston is a major American city, one of the oldest cites in the United States, but its zoo is not particularly well known. Franklin Park is one of several parks that stretch across Boston that are collectively called the “Emerald Necklace”. The zoo was established in 1912. It is currently administered by a non-profit organization called Zoo New England which also runs the Stone Zoo located a few miles north of Boston. I did not visit the Stone Zoo, but it appears to have primarily North and South American animals with some Asian animals like gibbons and snow leopards.

    Date of visit: June 23, 2016

    Does this zoo satisfy the reviewer’s Inner-3-Year-Old by featuring his lifelong favorite animals, giraffes and elephants?

    The Franklin Park Zoo has a very good exhibit for Masai giraffes. They share their space with Grevy’s zebras. The exhibit is large and lushly planted. It is an attractive exhibit and one of the best that I have seen for these species. One disadvantage of the exhibit apparently is that there is no indoor viewing of the giraffes and they are kept off exhibit in cold weather, meaning that they are not out much of the year. Many zoo reviews on travel sites make unhappy note of this. Indeed it seems that many of the zoo exhibits are not operational for much of the year including star attractions like the giraffes, butterfly pavilion, Australian section, and farm exhibit. I’m glad that I was able to visit the zoo in the summer when most of the zoo was open.

    There are no live elephants at the zoo, although they do have an African elephant skeleton as an interpretive exhibit about poaching in Africa. The Franklin Park Zoo did have Asian elephants in the 1930s and perhaps beyond that based on historical photos that I found online. The elephant house was knocked down in the late 1970s after having been abandoned for decades. The Franklin Park Zoo once had several megafauna species like elephants, hippo, grizzly and polar bears, giraffes, and big cats, which then for some reason all left the zoo for many decades. By the late 1970s it appears that the zoo was reduced mostly to birds and hoof stock. Zoo New England has been working since the 1990s to build the Franklin Park Zoo back up with new giraffe, lion, tiger, Australia (kangaroos, budgie aviary, parrots), and zebra exhibits. I would be interested in the history of why this zoo declined for so long if anyone knows about the history of the Franklin Park Zoo. It seems like an interesting tale of a big city zoo left to rot and then revived.

    Does this zoo have any animals that would excite a zoo aficionado?
    The Franklin Park Zoo has pottos, one of the few North American zoos with this species. There were two of them clambering around their nocturnal exhibit when I saw them.

    As of 2016 there are also North Island kiwis and keas, species also found in few U.S. zoos. The kiwis are in a nocturnal building and were not out when I toured the zoo; I suspect that is the normal state of their exhibit. The keas were active, playful, and loud.

    Does this zoo have any immersion exhibits that would impress a zoo aficionado?

    The Franklin Park Zoo’s major exhibit is a tropical rain forest building that was designed in the mid-1970s apparently, but completed after 11 years of construction in 1989. It originally was called the African Tropical Forest Pavilion and most of the elaborate interpretive exhibits inside of it are about African forest ecology, natural history, and conservation. The exhibits were once exclusively African animals, but now there are several South American species also making it a general tropical forest exhibit. South American species include Baird’s tapir, ocelot, giant anteater, cotton-top tamarins, two-toed sloth, and anaconda. The African species present include gorillas, pygmy hippos, mandrills, pottos, fruit bats, dwarf crocodile, and an aquarium of cichilds. There are free flying bird species throughout the building including hadada ibis, hammerkop, and scarlet ibis.

    Most of the exhibits in the tropical forest are somewhere between okay and good. It isn’t any worse than comparable tropical forest complexes in other zoos like the Lied Jungle in Omaha or Jungle World in the Bronx Zoo, and it doesn’t have the attempts at naturalism that those exhibits have, but it is good overall. The gorilla exhibit is large and lit by natural sunlight. There is a connected outdoor exhibit that was originally for gorillas, but no longer is because one of them kept escaping apparently. One hopes that this exhibit will eventually become usable by them again. There is also an outdoor exhibit for the Baird’s tapirs.

    The gorilla troop was very active when I was there and there was a docent interpreting the behavior and personalities of each gorilla. One of the things that I really liked about this zoo was that many of the exhibits had zoo educators standing by to interpret the exhibits. They usually had skulls and other artifacts to help interpret the animals. This really personalized the zoo visit. There were also keepers all over who were very approachable and friendly.

    The lion exhibit was apparently a grotto of some kind once as it has a massive moat, but it has been transformed into a nicely planted savanna with multiple viewpoints.

    The butterfly pavilion is very large and beautifully planted. It has a serene soundtrack playing in the background and was one of our favorite parts of the zoo. We were there on a cool, cloudy morning so there were not many butterflies flitting around, but it was fun to look for them. The young education interpreters in this exhibit were excellent, and it was nice that there was not an extra charge to get in, although at $20, basic admission to this zoo is very expensive already so that makes sense.

    Does this zoo have any good basic exhibits?

    There is a spacious exhibit for spotted hyenas connected to the Tropical Forest house. Apparently it once held African wild dogs in the past and cheetahs before that.

    There is a large exhibit for Grant’s zebras, wildebeest, and ostrich and another mixed exhibit for bongos and red river hogs. There is a mixed exhibit for warthogs and African crested porcupines, a mix I have never encountered. All of these exhibits are spacious and green.

    The Bird’s World exhibit is the oldest building in use in the zoo. It was built in 1913 and has an invertebrate gallery (several terrariums with tarantulas, hissing cockroaches, etc.), a swamp exhibit, Australian outback exhibit with Gould’s finches, and a tropical forest exhibit. There are outside exhibits for great hornbills, kea, and kookaburras. There is a nearby aviary with Chilean flamingoes and a massive walk-through aviary with Andean condors, the largest space for this species that I have seen in a zoo and quite impressive. Visitors are contained in a fenced in walkway that goes through the aviary that looks exactly like the pterodactyl aviary in Jurassic Park 3. Did the production designer for that movie visit the Franklin Park Zoo?

    Does this zoo have any exhibits that should be bulldozed?

    The zoo is on 72 acres of deciduous woodland in a pretty park in the middle of Boston. It is one of the most attractive zoo grounds that I have been on and I really enjoyed that. My wife noted however that there are long stretches with no animals or exhibits; this is also a recurrent complaint in reviews on travel websites. Much of the original zoo HAS been bulldozed, and now it seems like Zoo New England is trying to put it back together, a process which is happening over decades.

    There were several small aviaries in the Australian section that were disappointing and ramshackle. These are obviously only used in summer months, but did not do their magnificent palm cockatoo and sulfur-crested cockatoo inhabitants justice.

    The interpretation in the Bird’s World and Tropical Forest exhibits felt like entering a museum of 1970s and 1980s zoo interpretation, which it was as they haven’t been updated since then. There was some great information and elaborate presentation, but it was from an era when zoo educators thought that showering zoo visitors with an encyclopedia or biology class equivalent of information would meaningfully educate zoo visitors. Unfortunately it did not back then, and still does not.

    Does this zoo have any elements that make it particularly family friendly?

    When I visited the zoo was being swarmed with busloads of school kids and moms with kids. The zoo has a massive playground, a carousel, and a safari jeep carnival ride. Families with kids are obviously the major constituency for the zoo. The zoo has a central walkway from which all of the exhibits radiate and is fairly straightforward to walk around. The major zoo exhibits (giraffes, lions, tigers, gorillas, butterflies, and Australia with kangaroos and budgies) are all designed for easy family viewing.

    There is a farm area in the zoo with goats, cows, pigs, and miniature horses that kids can pet. There is also a chicken coop and hatchery where the science of chick development and egg hatching is presented in an engaging, family friendly way. The barn has a large aviary for barn owls. The farm was a highlight of the zoo.

    Does this zoo have any interesting plans for the future?

    There is a new children’s zoo under construction as of summer 2016. It looks like it will have red pandas, prairie dogs, and other species interspersed with nature play areas. From the state of construction it looks like it will probably be open in spring or summer 2017?

    Supposedly there is a Franklin Park Zoo master plan that outlines plans for some kind of major Asia exhibit according to rumors on Zoochat. Orangutans and Komodo dragons have been mentioned. The only major Asian species at the zoo currently on exhibit are tigers and great hornbills, so expanding that exhibit theme would make sense and add some much needed animal exhibits to some of the zoo's vast spaces.

    I’ve read that there were originally plans for four major exhibit pavilions at the zoo back in the 1970s. It is unlikely that such exhibits would be built now, but maybe there is some useful inspiration in those plans? There was another post on Zoochat suggesting that African elephants were the original planned anchors of the African Tropical Forest building rather than gorillas. I don’t know if this is true. An elephant exhibit would be a major attraction at this zoo. However, given the present reality of elephant exhibits costing tens of millions of dollars and the move away from keeping the species in northern zoos it seems unlikely that will happen at the Franklin Park Zoo.

    Would a zoo aficionado like this zoo enough to go out of his or her way to visit it?

    I really liked the Franklin Park Zoo in some ways. It has some excellent exhibits for giraffes, zebra, and African antelope species. It had some unusual species that I enjoyed seeing like pottos and keas. The young education staff was personable and informative and greatly enhances the zoo. The zoo grounds are very attractive. The butterfly pavilion and farm are excellent. Yet if I visited in cold weather most of these exhibits would be closed, and I would not feel that I got good value for the high cost of admission.

    This zoo is definitely improving from the low place it was at in the 1970s-1990s. The zoo is active in conservation projects and the devoted staff is obviously working hard to create good homes for the animals. Yet much of the interpretation in the bird house and tropic house is faded and dated.

    If a zoo aficionado or anyone who likes zoo-visiting happens to be in Boston then I would think they would want to visit the Franklin Park Zoo to see unusual animals like pottos and keas. There are good exhibits for the megafauna zoo stars like gorillas, giraffes, and lions. However, I would not consider the Franklin Park Zoo a major or “must see” zoo if one is designing a zoo tour of the eastern United States. It is a good zoo and getting better.
     
    Last edited: 1 Jul 2016
  2. jayjds2

    jayjds2 Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for the review! I may go to Boston this year or next so I'll definitely make time for this zoo.
     
  3. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    I really like your approach to reviews
     
  4. urbpan

    urbpan Member

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    Chronically underfunded

    The reason that FPZ was so run down in the middle of the 20th century is that the zoo has always been chronically underfunded. It's never had strong support from the community, and the State government has a history of keeping its budget ridiculously slim. Up until the 70s it was run by an agency of the State Government that also ran many city parks. All the buildings from that era are ugly inefficient cinderblock affairs, and the zoo rarely has the money to make major improvements (the childrens zoo project and the master plan you mention are welcome exceptions to this).

    Toward the end of the 70s the zoo began hiring people who really wanted to do right by the animals--they were shunned by the old guard, union workers, who saw the newcomers as silly college kids who were threatening their easy jobs. Several of those newcomers stayed on and help shepherd the zoo through a transition from being city and state run to being run by a non-profit corporation. It was at that point that the business model of the zoo changed, and development and fundraising became important parts of the new corporation. All the steady improvements you mention (the tropical forest, the playground, the new childrens zoo) are results of long slow progress.

    The zoo still gets more than half its budget from the state, and whenever there's a political shift or an economic crisis, the zoo's finances become unstable. In the past decade or so FPZ has built up much more community goodwill and a stable donor base, so that it can rely less on public funding. The zoo employs something like 150 full time workers who all have to find housing in the incredibly expensive Boston housing market. There are staff that drive from New Hampshire and Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts (2 hours each way) in order to afford to work at the zoo. The keeper staff is some of the most passionate and committed people I have ever met (I'm a little close to be objective, obviously).

    I hope that answers your question about the zoo's history, and gives you some hope about the zoo's future.
     
  5. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Great review my friend! The total annual budget for Zoo New England (both the Franklin Park Zoo AND nearby Stone Zoo) is $14 million while Boston's New England Aquarium has a yearly budget of $40 million. Not surprisingly, due to its prominent harbour location and tourist magnetism, the aquarium attracts 1.3 million annual visitors and is one of the best of its kind in the USA. Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo have perhaps 500,000 annual visitors combined and have financially struggled for the past couple of decades. In fact, last year there were several articles discussing the possibility of Stone Zoo permanently closing (and it was the same for Franklin Park a few years back) but it appears as if both zoos are gradually on the road to recovery.
     
  6. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Thanks for explaining the history of why things went wrong at the zoo, urbpan. I get the sense that maybe Boston is finally waking up to the fact that they have a good zoo, and that with some more investment it could become an even bigger asset. I was impressed by the friendly and professional staff at the zoo and their attentiveness to making sure that the zoo was well run and visitors were having a good experience.
     
  7. GraysonDP

    GraysonDP Well-Known Member

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    Well your opinion of the exhibit quality at this zoo is certainly a lot higher than mine. I've always considered it pretty weak in terms of naturalism and exhibitry.
     
  8. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I tend to agree with your assessment. In my opinion Franklin Park Zoo doesn't have any really poor sections but there also isn't anything outstanding either. Almost the entire zoo, from the Tropical Pavilion to Bird World to Serengeti Crossing to the big cat exhibits to the sprawling kiddie zone is of average/mediocre quality. A so-so zoo that could really use a mega exhibit to draw in more crowds.