Opening on September 18th, 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is the second oldest zoo in the US! The Reptile House building, which originally housed monkeys, is the oldest zoo building in the US. When the zoo opened, it had 769 animals, including the following: an American alligator, a buffalo, three white-tailed deer, a circus elephant, two elk, two grizzly bears, a laughing hyena, eight monkeys, six raccoons, a tiger and over four hundred birds.
Today the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has 23 unique exhibits and 1,896 animals, representing over 500 species. The zoo saves water with green roofs and rain barrels, produces clean energy with a 1.2kW wind turbine and solar panels over the Vine Street parking lot and grows native plants. These initiatives and many others make it the greenest zoo in America!
The zoo works hard to save endangered species and operates several breeding programs for bonobos, California sea lions, cheetahs, Malayan tigers, Masai giraffes, pottos, Sumatran rhinos and western lowland gorillas. Baby animals born at the zoo in the past few years include Santos the Ocelot, Kibibi and Belle the bonobos, Lin the red panda, Jack the bactrian camel and ChaCha the flamingo. The most recent addition, Mondika the western lowland gorilla, was born on Monday, August 4th! Every year during the month of May, the zoo celebrates these new additions with its annual Zoo Babies celebration.
I visited the Cincinnati Zoo several times as a kid. We went to see the Festival of Lights when I was very young and my Dad took me when I was in Jr. High to photograph tropical birds. Kenneth and I made our first visit as Cincinnatians a few weeks ago.
One of the things I was most excited about when we visited were the Animal Encounters and Shows. There are opportunities to feed the giraffes and camels and to meet many of the animals that call the zoo home. We even ran into a six-banded armadillo going on a walk!
One of the Animal Encounters we went to was the camel feeding. I’ve had a fondness for camels since I was a kid (especially bactrian camels) and was really excited to feed one! We fed the mama camel, Sari, though her baby, Jack, came up to the feeding area. The keepers had apple biscuits, which Sari devoured as each visitor handed her one. It was so cool to be that close to an animal I have been fascinated by for years!
Insects are animals that don’t usually fascinate me. They’re not cute and cuddly like most of my favorite animals (though honey and bumblebees can be very fuzzy, making them my favorite insects!). Kenneth and I decided to check out the World of the Insect exhibit anyway though, just to be thorough. I was surprised by how cool it was to see so many insects on display. They are kept in aquariums just like reptiles and amphibians are in the zoo! There were some bugs that made me squirm a little, but I’m glad we gave the exhibit a chance, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen the leaf-cutting ants. We were both amazed by these special, social ants! Their habitat in the World of the Insect building is the largest and includes two clear tunnels. We watched as the ants cut small (large to them) pieces of grapevine leaves and carefully carry them. They do not eat these leaves, but rather use them to grow fungus gardens which they feed from.
Watching these amazing ants carry a piece of leave three or four times their size or stop to communicate with fellow ants, made me think of biologist E.O. Wilson, who is famous for his study of ants. He described his love of ants this way:
I was a senior in high school when I decided I wanted to work on ants as a career. I just fell in love with them, and have never regretted it.
I didn’t fall in love with ants, but I did leave the World of Insect building with a lot more respect for ants and their insect relatives.
The zoo is home to many different kinds of primates. My favorites are the lively lemurs! We saw the black-and-white ruffed lemur, Coquerel’s sifaka, grey bamboo lemur and ring-tailed lemurs. The wide-eyed look of the Coquerel’s sifaka reminded me of my cat, Olivia, when she’s surprised. Many lemur species live in social groups (or troops) led by a dominant female. Lemurs reinforce their social bonds by huddling together, which we saw the ring-tailed lemurs doing during our visit. Their huddle looked like a giant “lemur cuddle puddle!”
One of my favorite exhibits was Wings of the World. This is where most of the birds on display can be seen. Several of the habitats allow visitors to walk into the aviaries with the birds! Some of the birds we saw included Victoria crowned pigeons (which are much bigger than the pigeons and doves living in the wild in Ohio), a sunbittern, Gouldian finches (the most colorful little birds I’ve ever seen), and a Hamerkop!
This isn’t the only place to see birds at the zoo. Near the Wings of the World is an outdoor aviary where we saw hyacinth and scarlet macaws. Walking through the zoo can offer a glimpse of the beautiful Indian peacock, which are allowed to wander wherever they like! The Eurasian eagle owl lives in the Night Hunters exhibit along with other nocturnal predators including several cat species: black-footed cats, clouded leopard, fishing cats and Pallas’ cats, as well as bat-eared foxes, aardwolves and vampire bats.
I love the tall bamboo in the Jungle Trails exhibit. It completely transforms the landscape and I no longer felt like I was in Ohio. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is accredited as a public garden through the American Association of Museums and cares for over 3,500 species of annuals, grasses, perennials, trees, shrubs and vines, including the extensive bamboo grove. Many of the plants in the collection at the zoo are rare and endangered.
Through the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Family Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife, or CREW, the zoo is able to study endangered plants and animals and work to preserve them. Nearly 25% of these plants are from Florida, including Avon Park harebells and four-petal pawpaw. Some other plants CREW is working to conserve are autumn buttercup, Cumberland sandwort and Northern wild monkshood. In addition to preserving endangered plants, CREW is also studying how local plants have changed in the Cincinnati region in the past 200 years through their Local Flora Project.
An exciting new exhibit at the zoo is Africa! We saw East African crowned cranes, cheetahs, Maasai giraffe, pink-backed pelicans and John the African lion. The final phase of the Africa exhibit will feature Nile hippos and allow visitors a close up look of the animals both above and below water.
Not only did we see lovely and amazing wild animals at the zoo, but we were also able to see some Ohio natives! We saw mallard ducks swimming with cranes, a ruby-throated hummingbird getting nectar from royal catchfly and surprised a grey squirrel on our way to feed camels. The zoo has been active in supporting native animals for a long time. The last living passenger pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago, as did the last living Carolina parakeet just four years later. Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird on the planet. Their flocks flying overhead were big enough to block out the sun! American ornithologist, and the first taxidermist for the Western Museum Society (which later became the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History), John James Audubon, described flocks of the passenger pigeon this way:
I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose… Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.
Passenger pigeons went extinct entirely due to human causes: over-hunting and habitat destruction. The zoo is currently renovating its Passenger Pigeon Memorial to Martha, in honor of the 100 year anniversary of her passing. Today the passenger pigeon serves as a symbol for animal conservation. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and the Cincinnati Museum Center are participating in Project Passenger Pigeon, in order to raises awareness about the history of the passenger pigeon and modern species which are currently threatened by human activities.
Before we left the zoo, we stopped in the gift shop. I was surprised to see a rack of Zoobooks, the magazines about animals my sister and I read as kids. This is where my love of wild animals really started! It was neat to see so many issues and think of kids reading them, just as I did years and years ago.
We will definitely be back to the zoo! There are so many wonderful animals and exhibits to explore! I recommend checking out the zoo’s website before your visit. You can watch videos about their animals and conservation efforts and get a schedule of the daily animal encounters and shows. You can also “adopt” your favorite zoo animal through the Cincinnati Zoo A.D.O.P.T. program. The proceeds from every A.D.O.P.T.ion go toward food, toys and other enrichment items for the animal of your choice (every animal at the zoo is included in the program)!
I might just have to adopt one of my favorites, the beautiful bactrian camel!
Address: 3400 Vine St. Cincinnati, Ohio 45220
Phone Number: 513-281-4700
Hours: The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is open every day of the year, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Click here to view hours as they vary by month.
Admission: Children 2-12 and Seniors 62+ – $11. Ages 13 – 61 – $15.