Heart of Africa – Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

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The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium opened in in 1927 with just a few animals. Today, the zoo is 90 acres with over 10,000 animals, representing over 575 species in six distinct habitats. The newest exhibit, Heart of Africa, is a 43 acre exhibit which transports visitors to an African savanna complete with lions, cheetahs, giraffes, zebras and Vervet monkeys. This exhibit opened at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium at the end May this year.

My husband, Kenneth, and I loved going to the The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. It’s definitely one of our favorite Columbus attractions! You can read my review of our September 2013 visit and our most recent visit to see the Zoo’s annual holiday Wildlights exhibit on my previous blog, Cbus52: Columbus in a Year.

Kenneth and I were lucky enough to be two of the hundreds of visitors to tour Heart of Africa the day it opened (which was just days before we moved from Columbus to the Cincinnati area). We arrived at the Zoo around 9:30am. Despite the opening being on a weekday (and before most school’s had closed for the summer), the Zoo was packed! We quickly made our way to the new exhibit area (it was difficult to rush through the North America exhibit and not stop to see some of our favorite native animals, like the American bobcat and mountain lion).

The crowd to see the ribbon cutting was huge! The amazing actress, Betty White, who happens to be an old friend of Jack Hanna’s, was there to say a few words and help officially open the exhibit. She spoke briefly about her first visit to the Zoo in 1979 and her lifelong dream to visit Africa, which she had recently given up because her age and health would not allow her to make such a trip. She toured Heart of Africa the night before the official opening and was happy to announce that she felt she had achieved her dream of going on an African safari right here in Columbus. Just before she helped Jack Hanna cut the ribbon, he announced that the entrance to Heart of Africa was being named “Betty White Way,” in honor of their friendship and her support of animals and the Zoo. So sweet!

I was so excited to see some of my favorite animals in Heart of Africa: camels! Two young camels are in their own enclosure, and just around the corner are adult camels that visitors can ride. These camels are Dromedary camels (single humped camel) and in the wild they live in the deserts of Northern Africa and southwestern Asia. I’ve loved camels ever since I was a kid. I’m not sure what first sparked my interest, I remember writing a report about these fascinating animals as early as first grade. I desperately wanted a camel as a pet, which I would ride to school. Instead of a Dromedary camel, I wanted a Bactrian camel (double humped camel), which are native to central Asia and able to withstand both extremely hot and cold temperatures (perfect for Ohio!). Despite my love for camels I did not ride one at the Zoo, I’m saving that for our next visit!

The Mudiwa Village in Heart of Africa is beautiful! When we first arrived and were waiting for the ribbon cutting ceremony to begin, performers played the drums and danced on the stage. Near the stage we saw a play area with drums for children. Flags of African countries decorate one section of the village marketplace and everywhere you look there are educational signs teaching children about water conservation and animal conservation. One large sign compares the damage raccoons do to homes and garbage bins here in North America to that of the Vervet monkey in Africa. The exhibit really makes you feel like you’ve left Columbus and traveled to the African savanna. There is a replica of Jack Hanna’s base camp (which is raided daily by real Vervet monkeys) that visitors can explore (complete with photos of Jack and Betty White!), a large Jeep filled with supplies and a grounded airplane children can climb aboard to get a closer look at the African lions. At different times during the day, the Zoo’s cheetahs run in a specially built enclosure to demonstrate their incredible speed.

There is also information on display about the Zoo’s current wildlife conservation efforts, specifically related to animals from the African savanna. These are the organizations the Zoo is currently working with: Action for Cheetahs, Cheetah Conservation Fund, Cheetah Outreach Organization, Ewaso Lions ProjectGiraffe Conservation Organization, Ruaha Carnivore Project and the South Luangwa Conservation Society.

The savanna animal habitat is unreal! Staring out across the vast, mostly treeless area I had to keep reminding myself that we were in Ohio. A variety of savanna animals live in this space: African lions, blue neck ostrich, dama gazelles, East African grey-crowned cranes, giraffes, greater kudu, guinea fowl, saddle-billed storks, slender-horned gazelles, Thomson’s gazelle’s, wildebeests and zebras. Not all of these animals roam together though — while the savanna appears to be one giant habitat, it is actually broken up into several smaller habitats. These divisions are called “ha-ha moats” and are narrow valleys, many filled with large rocks, and fences.  The lions are kept separate from the hooved animals, for obvious safety reasons! The large rocks in the “ha-ha moats” are noticeable, but they do not take away from the look of an unending savanna landscape. For a small fee, visitors can get up close and personal with the giraffes and feed them lettuce leaves.

We were fortunate enough to be walking past the African lion exhibit just as a zoo keeper talk was beginning. Two Zoo staff members were training the lions to perform simple tasks that make it easier to exam them during veterinary checkups, like touching their paws to the cage or standing tall so they can be looked at. The lions were rewarded with raw meat. A third Zoo staff member explained what was happening to the small crowd that had gathered to watch. I noticed that the lioness appeared to be trying harder and ended up standing very tall for a treat, the male lion hardly made an effort!

After visiting all of the animals in Heart of Africa, we decided to grab lunch at the Maproi Restaurant in Mudiwa Village. The restaurant dining area overlooks the savanna and lion habitat and the view is amazing! As we ate we watched ostriches and cranes, zebras and wildebeest roaming their habitat in small groups! We shared a delicious meal of North African roasted chicken, roasted root vegetables and a chickpea salad with tomatoes and cucumbers. We still talk about the food from this most recent trip to the Zoo — it was amazing!

Our last stop before leaving Heart of Africa was to check out the village marketplace where you could find typical Zoo gift shop items like stuffed giraffes, lions and camels, but also Fair Trade crafts, jewelry and home decor items. There was a great selection, definitely not a repeat of things that you would find in the main gift shop near the entrance to the Zoo.

Even though this post is about Heart of Africa, I couldn’t help sharing some of my favorite photos from other parts of the Zoo during our most recent visit. I love visiting the birds in all of the different regions of the Zoo, from the African gray parrots in Expedition Congo African Forest to the Songbird Aviary in North America. Our visit to the Lorikeet Garden was especially memorable. When I was trying to photograph a lovely lorikeet, she leaned over and climbed onto my camera and proceeded to walk up my arm to my neck! I was so excited to have her perched on me that it took me a while to notice what she was after, my necklace! It was a fun experience and Kenneth took my camera to capture some great shots, but I was a little disappointed that my new friend was only interested in my for my jewelry.

While waiting for the crowds of people to move through Heart of Africa after the grand opening, Kenneth and I decided to check out North America and the Polar Frontier. Brown bear brothers, Brutus and Buckeye, seemed to be very interested in all of the activity in Heart of Africa, which is fairly close to their home. We gathered with a group of other visitors, watching the bears “people watch.” The polar bears seemed less concerned about the new activity and were napping. Later in the afternoon when we visited Voyage to Australia and the Islands, we saw a koala that was awake! Every time we’ve been to the Columbus Zoo, the koalas have been sleeping. According the Columbus Zoo Animal Guide, koalas typically sleep 18-20 hours a day. We were just in the right place at the right time!

Being an unapologetic crazy cat lady, my favorite Zoo animals are some of the felines. We saw one of the baby Amur tigers sleeping with her mother, and we saw the Zoo’s Pallas’ cats! The Pallas’ cat is always hard to spot. Her mottled gray fur blends in well with the gray stone of her enclosure and being a cat, she’s excellent at finding a nice, secluded spot to nap in. I was so excited to see not only one, but two Pallas’ cats (we’ve only ever seen one before this visit) but one of them was sleeping right up against the glass. They are so adorable, they look like an animal from the Truffula Tree Forest in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax!

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We always have a wonderful time at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and I’m excited to go back and check out Heart of Africa again!

ohio-120x120The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Address: 4850 West Powell Road, Powell Ohio 43065

Phone Number: 800-MONKEYS

Hours: The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is open every day of the year, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Click here to view hours as they vary by month.

Admission: Under 2 – Free. Ages 2-9 – $9.99. Ages 10-59 – $14.99. Ages 60+ – $10.99. Parking is $8.00 per car.

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