Sensational destinations don’t always have to be far away. Some of the best destinations and fabulous memories can be made right in our hometowns. This thought occurred to me yesterday when I visited the St. Louis Zoo: an adventure less than 20 minutes from my home. The first zoo experience that I can recall is as a child in first grade during a field trip. I have been going back since. I have gone as a chaperone on my children’s field trips, taken my grandchildren, and gone just because.
The St. Louis Zoo is Steeped in History
It all started with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the subsequent 1904 World’s Fair and Summer Olympics. The zoo was in Forest Park, a hub of activity in St. Louis. At 1326 acres, Forest Park has more area than Central Park in New York City. In 2022, Forest Park was named the nation’s best city park and awarded the USA Today’s Readers Choice Award.
After the Fair, in 1910, the zoo came to fruition. The bird cage was purchased for $3500.00 and was the first exhibit. Many of the structures within the zoo are buildings that were part of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition and have been repurposed. The Ape and Reptile Houses are examples of these repurposed buildings. Besides them, several of the bridges and lookout points are remnants of the Exposition.
The Zoo Controversy
There is some thought that zoo environments are cruel to animals. While that might have been true years ago, today’s zoos, St. Louis included, are animal friendly. By replicating natural habitats, they educate and preserve the animals. Zoos provide a safe environment for animals to breed and repopulate. Researchers can study their habits and needs while they stay in comfortable, safe environments.
Despite St. Louis being my hometown, I have been to zoos all over the world, and it provides a unique look into the world’s habitats. It provides a safe and comfortable home for our animal friends. I’ve been on safari in Africa, and I’ve seen the results of illegal poaching. Zoos are doing their best to protect and care for the non-human creatures of our glorious world.
Why is the St. Louis Zoo So Special?
- Attracting over three million visitors per year, the zoo is one of the only free zoos in the country. The organization is funded by memberships, donations, and endowments, as well as by a 1% city tax on employees.
- With all the open picnic areas and dining venues, people can bring in their own food and drink. This alone makes it affordable for families.
- In 2017, the Zoo partnered with the Missouri Botanical Garden and Washington University to establish the Living Earth Collaborative. To promote understanding of how people can help conserve the natural environments that sustain plants, animals, and microbes.
- Throughout its existence, the St. Louis Zoo has presented state-of-the-art exhibits that display the animals in their areas that replicate their natural habitat. It offers the visitors the opportunity to experience the animals up-close-and-personal. The first of these that I remember is Big Cat Country. Another cutting-edge exhibit is Sea Lion Sound. The visitors can walk through an underwater tunnel into the sea lions’ habitat to see the animals swimming all around them! There are no cages!
- The grounds are a mix of the Fair buildings, exhibits, and botanicals. Much of the area is shady and on hot days in St. Louis, there are misting fans for the comfort of the visiting guests.
- Located on 90 acres in Forest Park, the Saint Louis Zoo is home to 655 species of animals. Many of them are rare and endangered. There are over 14,000 animals at the zoo.
- Hours of operation are 363 days per year, closed only on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
- There are several “Behind the Scenes” Tours that can be purchased that offer unique experiences. We have taken a couple of these tours and they are fabulous!
- From Thanksgiving to the end of the year, US Bank sponsors Wild Nights at the Zoo. A fabulous evening of lights, with winter activities for children and adults. We have attended this event several times. Seeing the animals at night illuminated by the holiday lights is a cool experience.
- The fauna throughout the zoo is used as a food source for the animals.
The River’s Edge is home to animals from four continents: North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Completely shaded, there is a fabricated river that runs through, treating a guest to waterfalls and babbling water as they view the following displays:
- North America displays the Missouri wetland and Missouri River aquarium.
- South America treats guests to Andean bears, bush dogs, capybaras, and giant anteaters.
- Africa gives a visitor glimpse into the lives and habitat of black rhinos, painted dogs, red river hogs, hippos, hyenas, cheetahs, and mongooses.
- Asia proudly displays the majestic Asian elephants along with the Malayan sun bears.
As you walk through, the paths are lined with bamboo and other natural fauna native to the areas you are viewing. Along the path, are paw prints of the animals you are about to view. We usually save this section of the zoo for the heat of the day as the mist and shade keep you cool.
One of my favorite displays is the African Painted Dogs. When on Safari in Kruger National Park in South Africa, we were fortunate to see a pack of these nearly extinct animals. It is said that there are only about 3000 left in the wild.
In this area, you will find animals from the sub-Antarctic to tropical rainforests. The displays are absolutely amazing! Separated into eco-systems, offering visitors an opportunity to experience the lives of:
- The Grizzley Bears at Grizzley Ridge
- Penguins and Puffins at Penguin and Puffin Coast
- Polar Bear Point
- The summer home for the Orangutans, Chimpanzees, and Gorillas at the Fragile Forest
- The winter home for Orangutans, Chimpanzees, and Gorillas at Jungle of the Apes
This area is the educational and resource hub of the zoo. Retail and the Zooline Train Station are located here as well. A popular exhibit for children and adults, the Insectarium is the main draw.
- Insectarium offers more than 20 exhibits with over 100 species of insects. With butterflies flying overhead, the entire area is a hands-on experience.
Many of the buildings, including the Flight House, are remnants from the 1904 World’s Fair. As you wander through this area of the zoo, it feels as if you are walking through a botanical garden. It is simply lovely! In this section of the zoo, you will find:
- Herpetarium, a Mediterranean Stucco building with red roof tiles houses the Alligators and Crocodiles. Lizards, Snakes, Turtles, and Tortoises, Caecilians, Frogs and Toads, Salamanders, and Newts. Four different climates are represented under one roof!
- The Primate House has glass enclosures where a visitor can watch the primates interact, by social group, in an exceptional area similar to their natural habitat.
- The Primate Canopy Trails is a new exhibit, a first of its kind. It is a 35,000-square-foot area connected to the Primate House where the animals roam through a mock forest canopy, again resembling their natural habitat. There are ropes, trees, and other climbing structures for the primates to feel free.
- The Bird House and Gardens house birds from the rainforest to the desert. The enclosures are made up of stainless steel, and vertical wires which are almost invisible. In a garden-like setting, one can wander through a peaceful tranquil environment. The waterfowl collection is the largest in the United States.
- Sea Lion Sound, another one-of-a-kind, exhibit, a visitor walks through underground tunnels watching the sea lions swim overhead and next to guests. The sea lions are notoriously engaging creatures and interact with the guests, seemingly performing antics for one’s entertainment!
Natural gigantic rock rocks occur throughout this section of the zoo, giving some of the world’s greatest predators a place to roam.
- Big Cat Country is another natural setting for these almost extinct creatures. Each enclosure is about 1/3 acre. There are pools in each enclosure along with a massive 27-foot waterfall. Housed in this area are the African Lion, Amur Leopard, Amur Tiger, Jaguar, and the Snow Leopard.
- Antelope habitats is an areas with large moated areas. The hoofed mammals can spend their days either outside or they can wander into their indoor enclosures. Here you find the North Habitats: lesser kudu, Somali wild ass, babirusa, and soemmerring’s gazelle. South Habitats: Grevy’s zebra, camel, addax, and banteng. East Habitats: giraffe, Speke’s gazelle, okapi, and kangaroo. West Habitats: gorals, Transcaspia Visayan Warty Pign urials and taking.
Mostly a customer service, retail, and restaurant area, the most important exhibit here is the
- Stingrays at Caribbean Cove does have a small entrance fee and is located under a large pavilion near Lakeside Cafe, these ocean animals swim through a 17,000-gallon pool complete with a waterfall and a lush surrounding landscape. The area is an interactive area where guests can touch and feed the stingrays.
This is a great video of the St. Louis Zoo. However, it was shot during the pandemic. There is no longer the need to make a reservation in advance to visit.
Wild Nights at the Zoo
Running during the holiday season from Thanksgiving until the first of the New Year, Us Bank Sponsors Wild Nights at the Zoo. It’s a great way to wander the zoo decorated with fabulous holiday lights, participate in winter activities and see some of the animals in the evening hours. It’s a popular, albeit crowded yearly event. We have attended a few times and I can tell you that is a great time for family fun.
St. Louis Zoo Fun Facts
- The City of St. Louis purchased the 1904 World’s Fair Flight Cage for $3,500.
- In 1917, 299,100 people visited the Zoo. In 2009, the Zoo broke an all-time record with 3,101,830 visitors.
- Phil the gorilla’s fame was such that he was once featured in Life magazine as “an up and coming gorilla”.
- School children donated their pennies to purchase Miss Jim the elephant in 1916.
- Marlin Perkins, the host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom television show, was director of the Saint Louis Zoo from 1962-1970.
- Siegfried the walrus was one of the Zoo’s most popular animals in the 1960s, particularly because he would let visitors tickle his chin.
- Raja was the first elephant born at the Zoo in 1992.
St. Louis Zoo Final Impressions
The St. Louis Zoo is one of my favorite places to visit in my hometown. My most recent visit was last week. As an avid animal lover, my first recollection of a zoo experience was as a child on a 1st-grade field trip. I remember being fascinated. Of course, back then the enclosures were much different and certainly more confining than they are today. The experience is an unforgettable memory. Observing animals in the wild in Africa and in zoos worldwide has given me an insight into the plight of our animal kingdom. It has made me more conscious and appreciative of our fragile environment; a lesson of great importance.
I kindly ask you to support your local zoo and to be kind to this glorious world we live in.
Until next time, friends, remember “To Travel is to Live!”