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Our Father’s Day reunion weekend in Philly ended with a trip to a classic family activity — a trip to the zoo.

And this zoo in particular is a historic destination as well. is America’s first, having received a charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1859 and opening its gates fifteen years later in 1874 with over 600 animals. Today, the conservation and education centered zoo has more than 1,300 animals under its care.

My oldest sister Sarah had to take off early to make the long drive back to Massachusetts in Sunday traffic, and so after a classic brunch of dad’s famous pancakes and a round of goodbyes, the remaining four of us made our way towards the wild side.

As with any family outing, much of it consisted of  ridiculous photo ops and borderline bad behavior.

Recently I wrote a post about how my views on zoos and aquariums are evolving, it was interesting to visit this one through that lens. Even more interesting was to read, just a few weeks after our visit, a in The New York Times about a doctor who spends his days treating distressed zoo animals.

The New York Times article discusses the evolution of zoos and how it is happening slowly, so that while one section of a zoo might feel extremely forward-thinking, education-focused and appropriately complex and sized for the animal living in it, others might still be awaiting renovation and leave the visitor feeling squeamish by today’s standards.

Overall, I found the Philadelphia Zoo very evolved, with a strong focus on education and conservation. A few times we joked it seemed the animals were literally running the place — peacocks strutted alongside guests, goats climbed a jungle gym that children were scampering on moments before, and above our heads excitable monkeys played and laid back panthers strutted by.

The latter is a product of , a network of trails that allows animals to leave their homes and travel above and around the zoo grounds. Lemurs, monkeys and orangutans have their own trails, and since Spring 2014, as do the big cats. Expansions for the big cats and gorillas are on the docket for 2015, while in 2016 the zoo plans to link together the Great Plains exhibits so that giraffes, rhinos and zebras can rotate and time share their environments. This was one of the most original things I’ve seen in the zoos I’ve visited around the world — an interactive experience for visitors as well as a more stimulating and unrestricted environment for the animals.

 

In the Big Cat house, I browsed an interactive display about destructive palm oil harvesting and signed a petition — later at home I found myself researching the topic for the first time and thankful to the zoo for inspiring my interest in it. For younger visitors, a wall asking kids why it was important to protect big cats yielded hilarious results, my favorite response being a somber, “Big cats are my only friends.”

The Philly Zoo is also looking out for the health of its human visitors — we were amazed that in addition to the usual hot dog and ice cream stands, there was a healthy dining stand selling fruit and salads and touting “responsibly raised proteins”, and a gourmet taco truck doling out delicious meals.

As The New York Times story suggested, most US zoos are in state of flux, with some habitats lagging behind the others. In contrast to so many of the lush and sprawling enclosures outside, I found the primate house lacking and didn’t linger.

The traveler in me never quits. The more animals we saw, the more trips I found myself planning in my mind to visit them next on their own turf — to track gorillas in Rwanda, to photograph giant tortoises in the Galapagos, to walk alongside camels in the shadow the Egyptian pyramids. Talk about wanderlust!

I don’t think I will ever be able to look at giraffes again without thinking of of them as “leggy blonde models who have been fed a month’s supply of Xanax.”

Yet as exotic as so many of the Philadelphia Zoo’s residents are, when we made our way to the exit naming our favorite animals, I found myself naming the otter without hesitation.

As someone who is admittedly ambivalent about zoos, I really enjoyed our family afternoon wandering around this one. My sniff test is, “Did I leave feeling mostly guilty and conflicted, or did I leave feeling mostly educated and uplifted?” This one fell firmly in the latter camp.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Philadelphia and made my way back to my beloved NYC. Any suggestions on what I can’t miss next time I’m in The City of Brotherly Love?

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26 Comments...
  • Katie
    August 4 2014

    I love your “sniff test” – that’s exactly how I make my ethical travel decisions too! It’s so refreshing to read a post about a zoo from this angle. Our zoo in my home town is making some great strides too, in both conservation and animal welfare, but you do have to choose which ones to visit wisely!
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      Indeed. The major zoos in big US cities I think tend to have more funding and scrutiny — it’s the small ones that make me a bit nervous sometimes. It’s a complicated issue!

  • Ashley
    August 4 2014

    I always feel conflicted when it comes to zoos, but I love hearing that some are making an effort to expand enclosures and even offer healthier meal options to guests!
    Ashley recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      Yeah, it was quite the surprise! Of course my sister Olivia and I were going wild for the ice cream and hotdogs, but for someone like my sister Margaret who is an athlete with a pretty specific diet it was a nice surprise to be able to buy something as basic as an apple!

  • I’ve never thought much about zoos and how ethical they are. I always assume that they take good care of the animals since the animals always look healthy to me, but it’s something I will start looking into.

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      You should check out the New York Times story — it’s eye opening!

  • becky hutner
    August 4 2014

    glad the philly zoo has the AIW seal of approval! i too learned about palm oil at a wildlife center & it has since become one of the most important issues for me. while i was never big on candy bars, mass produced peanut butter or starbucks (all offenders), i have been forced to renounce colgate toothpaste, dove soap (unilever is apparently one of the worst offenders) & do some careful reading on the labels of supposedly cruelty-free vegan products. so many of them use it! in case you or your readers aren’t familiar, this is my go-to resource on the matter:

    stepping off my soapbox now. thanks for continuing to raise awareness alex!
    becky hutner recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 5 2014

      Thank you for sharing that link, Becky! I admit I was pretty overwhelmed at first by the prospect of figuring this palm oil thing out… I’m still struggling to buy animal testing free! But I know it’s important and it was a good thing to come out of the zoo visit.

      • becky hutner
        August 5 2014

        i feel you…i often find myself paralyzed at the grocery store, weighing the ethical, environmental, health and financial sides of my prospective purchase. my general rule of thumb these days is…as close to nature as possible. more challenging to do this while traveling but i do have my tricks (like making my own skincare products & putting them in old jars for the road)! and am always learning new ones…it’s a process 🙂
        becky hutner recently posted..

  • Sky
    August 4 2014

    Despite living only 2 hours from Philly for most of my life I am sad to say I have never made to the the zoo. Glad to hear that it’s making good headway at becoming an ethical environment…now I’m curious how the Pittsburgh (where I live now) Zoo stacks up…
    Sky recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      Maybe it’s time for another trip to Philly 🙂 I know I’ll be making many over the years!

  • Otters are my favourite animals too! (along with cats and goats)Sounds like a fantastic zoo and very forward thinking. I haven’t been to a zoo in years but if they were all like this I think I would go more often. Nothing beats seeing the animals in their natural environment though. I went to Kruger National Park in South Africa and we did a self drive safari for a couple of days and it was incredible. Essentially the animals are enclosed but it is such a massive area and they live their lives in a natural way while also being protected by poachers. It was one of my favourite animal encounter experiences.
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      Oh, I am DYING to do a safari — and for that matter, just go to Africa in general! It sounds so divine. I’d be in my element!

  • Sorry – protected FROM poachers, not by them 🙂
    Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted..

  • Hi Meihoukai, been a while since I’ve commented but still reading your travels! I feel the same way you do about zoos. This is great exposure in educating others to make ethical decisions when choosing zoos and animal sanctuaries to give money to!
    Michelle | Lights Camera Travel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      Hey Michelle, glad to know you’re still reading 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, hope you’re well!

  • Justine
    August 5 2014

    I always have mixed feelings when it comes to zoos. I’m such an animal lover, but I always leave zoos feeling guilty for contributing to the sub par living conditions of the animals. It’s wonderful to hear that zoos in the US are making a serious effort to treat these amazing creatures better! I love the idea of allowing the animals to leave their enclosure and cruise around in more natural surroundings 🙂 And there are healthy eating options too!? Talk about progress!
    Justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      I know, right?! I think the healthy food booth was the biggest shock of all. Hopefully more US attractions follow their lead!

  • This zoo sounds so fascinating! The focus on education you’re talking about reminds me of (I’m sure I’ll probably get some eye-rolls for saying this BUT) Disney’s Animal Kingdom. More than an attraction, the park actually doubles as a conservation reserve and education centre. You can watch the vets work and everything. I personally thought it was really interesting and I learned a lot during my visit!
    Sara @ The Let’s Go Ladies recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      I haven’t been to Animal Kingdom in years but I’m actually hoping to go back in January! Fingers crossed 🙂

  • Josh
    August 5 2014

    I like to hit animal sanctuaries like the one we have in colorado instead of zoos because they often don’t get the same traffic but going there helps those animals directly as there is more focus on taking care of them.
    Josh recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      I love visiting animal sanctuaries as well. Glad the ones in your area are taking good care of their animals!

  • Stephen Jones
    August 6 2014

    It’s been a long, long time since I’ve visited a zoo. I’ve often found them to be rather restrictive to the animals. However, I’m so glad that Philly Zoo is one that is being progressive in improving the facilities for their residents. I will make a point of visiting this one, when I make it to that part of the world again.
    Stephen Jones recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 8 2014

      I feel you — if you didn’t you should check out the post I linked to where I muse on my feelings on zoos. They’ve wavered over the years, and I am much picker now.

  • dad
    August 20 2014

    I don’t how I missed this when it first came out. I need to make sure other Philadelphians see this since it is a honest and levelheaded review of the zoo by a first time visitor from out of town.

    • Meihoukai
      August 22 2014

      If you haven’t read the piece I linked to in the New York Times, you really should. You in particular I think would very much enjoy it. It made me think a lot about Tucker of course!