BY CAROLE SAVAGE
SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BANNER
Jacksonville can be a real zoo, if you know where to go. Fortunately, the city’s zoo is not difficult to find, and a day can easily be spent there.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has several exhibits that are educational and intriguing. For the bird lover, the Birds of the Rift Valley duplicates conditions of the Wilds of East Africa with a two-story enclosure that allows the birds – and there are 65 of them representing 19 species – to fly about.
The Plains of East Africa is a 1,400-foot boardwalk that allows guests to watch animals in an environment as authentic as possible. Animals include the large Nile crocodile, the Wart Hog, the Kori bustard, which is the largest flying African bird, and antelope. A cheetah exhibit shows off the sleek cats, which are the fastest runners in the world. Other animals of interest are the white rhinoceros and ostrich.
As guests meander the boardwalk, Cape Buffalo, which are some of the most dangerous animals in Africa, can be viewed from a safe distance. In a lighter mode, the Elephant Plaza allows an up-close look at elephants in their swimming pool.
The zoo is also home to reptiles representing some of the world’s deadliest snakes among the others in the species such as vultures and bats. No Africa-themed exhibit is complete without lions, and the zoo’s two big cats live in a one-acre area. Also living nearby are the Colobus monkeys and a leopard.
The Giraffe Overlooks gives visitors a chance to see eye-to-eye with grazing giraffes while also providing a great view of the African Savanna.
Africa is not the only continent represented at the zoo, as the Australian Adventure features kangaroos and lorikeets. The Great Apes exhibit shows off apes, monkeys and prosimians such as ring-tailed lemurs, black and white lemurs and the red ruffed lemur.
Those who know Jacksonville know you can’t visit without looking for jaguars, and they are easy to find at the zoo. The Range of the Jaguar offers a look at the animal for which the city named its football team, and an Inca-themed exhibit gives additional chances to spot poison dart frogs, vampire bats and anacondas, among others.
“Probably our most popular exhibit is the Range of the Jaguar,” said Gina Stiles, marketing and membership manager for the zoo. “We have six jaguars, and that is the largest collection in the nation.” Stiles said Range of the Jaguar is an award-winning exhibit, recognized by the National Association for Zoos and Aquariums.
For those who like to see more of Florida, the Wild Florida exhibit is 2.5 acres of natural wetlands with native animals and plants such as black bears, red wolves, Florida panthers and, of course, alligators among the other state creatures. A Florida reptile exhibit also features the cold-blooded animals that love the sunshine state.
As the weather warms up, the Play Park at the zoo is another popular area. The newer 2.5 acre splash ground features replicas of sea creatures that live off the First Coast area of Florida. The sea creatures all spout water, and children of all ages can play on the statue-like water toys.
“The children love it, but we see adults go in all the time, too,” Stiles said. “They enjoy being able to cool off.”
The zoo has a good share of visitors, with 710,000 coming through the gates last year. “It was our best year,” Stiles said. “And we’ve broken records each month this year.” She credits the zoo’s constant changes, updates and additions as part of the success.
“We keep it interesting and growing, so people want to come back,” she said. “We add more to do and want to keep people coming back.” Not only locals go to see the animals and gardens, as statistics at the zoo show that about one out of every three visitors is from outside of Duval County.
“We are regionally and nationally known,” Stiles said.
For those who want to relax while observing the zoo, a train takes guests throughout the complex, giving a good view of animals and more.
Coming attractions include the Gardens of Trout River Plaza, which opens in August. These gardens will flow along the side of the Trout River, showing off the water’s beauty framed by blooming flowers and plants. Additionally, the Asian Garden will feature monsoon Asia, with all types of Asian animals, possibly including a Komodo Dragon, Siberian Tiger and orangutans. That project will open in three phases beginning next year.
“We’re real excited about the additions and changes,” Stiles said. “We’ve done some things like have camel rides, which we may extend, and that was very popular. We’ve also let the public feed the giraffes, and people liked that. It’s exciting to us as well as the public. We like to give a quality guest experience.”