Jacksonville Zoo

Well, it’s not exactly a day trip from Orlando, but if you’re driving to O-Town from up north, the Jacksonville Zoo is well worth a visit coming or going.

I stopped by to present the zoo with two awards on behalf of my publishing company, which recently brought out America’s Best Zoos by Allen Nyhuis and Jon Wassner. They chose Jacksonville Zoo as not only one of the best in the country, but number one in the nation for South American animals and exhibits.

The zoo’s spectacular Range of the Jaguar exhibit is one reason for the award. The area, which is designed with theme park-like pizazz and attention to detail, evokes a small Central American village where an ancient Mayan ruin is being excavated. In addition to the jaguars (including a magnificent black jaguar), there are capybaras, anteaters, and an array of reptiles and amphibians. Most entertaining are the two giant river otters, called lobos del rio (river wolves) in Latin America.

A cafeteria-style eatery, with cathedral windows that look into the jaguar habitat, and a Village Gift Shop round out the themeing. The spacious central plaza is popular with zoo visitors and is frequently used for weddings. (The award ceremony was scheduled to be held there until an untimely downpour inspired a change of venue.)

The zoo has many other beautiful habitats and exhibits, including a terrific giraffe enclosure. Under the supervision of Executive Director Dennis Pate, the zoo is making a concerted effort to blend the concept of zoo and botanical garden. In fact, the zoo’s official name is the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

The result is that this is one of the most beautiful zoos you are likely to visit this or any other year. Rather than a zoo with some interesting landscaping, this is a lush tropical environment with a zoo thrown in.

It’s also a zoo that takes very seriously its educational mission and that realizes that its younger visitors are its most important clients. In a brilliant move, Director Pate has expanded the zoo’s educational mission into the restrooms. In the children’s play area, the restrooms contain exhibits of animal poop, complete with signage that explains the many and wondrous things scientists can learn about animals by examining it. The kids love it.

The Jacksonville Zoo is conveniently located just off I-95 in northern of Jacksonville. Check it out.

Leave a Reply