Chicago is hugely popular among tourists for great buildings, restaurants, and shopping. But one of the chief attractions, for both locals and visitors, remains the Brookfield Zoo. Opened in 1934, the zoo is located on 216 acres about 14 miles west of downtown. The sights and the location are perfect for someone looking for something just outside the metropolis in the suburb of Brookfield.
An innovator from its beginnings, the Brookfield Zoo was among the first to use moats, ditches, and other forms of the enclosure instead of cages. The style is now in wide use, at such world-renowned zoos as San Diego Zoo and the Bronx Zoo.
The zoo featured the first Giant Panda exhibit in the United States and that continues to be a big attraction. The first resident, Su-Lin, has been preserved and is on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
In 1960, it built the country’s first indoor dolphin exhibit and in the 1980s introduced the first simulated rain forest. The tropical rain forest supplies shade and swinging fun for the monkeys, while birds flit in and out of the branches. Visitors can see their reactions as they watch the animals scamper around under a simulated thunderstorm.
Featuring landscaped grounds and over 2,000 animals (over 400 species), it fully deserves its reputation as one of the world’s great zoos. The Australia House houses many of the native species of that huge continent. The Baboon Island is a free-roaming area full of these delightfully active and noisy relatives of the great apes. The Reptile House has dozens of snakes, lizards, and creatures it’s hard even to categorize.
The Pachyderm House is home to huge elephants, once the home of Ziggy, a 6 1/2-ton bull elephant. The poor creature was confined to a cage indoors for nearly 30 years after attacking a trainer in 1941. Sadly, after being released in 1973 it fell into an exhibit moat two years later and died seven months after.
Among the other famous residents is Binti Jua, a lowland gorilla. In August of 1996, a young boy fell into her enclosure but she merely picked him up and brought him back to her trainers. She had performed a similar action many times, taking her own baby, Koola, to the trainers for inspection.
It has one of the largest meerkat collections of any zoo with over 30 residents scampering around clearly visible grounds behind glass. There are pygmy hippos, much smaller than the usual, but just as tough and fierce when aroused.
There are placid animals, too, including the hilarious tree sloths. Also amusing are the cotton-topped tamarins (a type of monkey that hails from Central or South America.) There’s an unusual type of horse, the Norwegian Fjord horse that will excite horse lovers. Reptile fans can check out the Sungazer lizard and the Indigo snake.
Only 20 minutes from downtown by cab, or about 30 minutes by bus, the zoo is easy to get to and you could spend the entire day before returning to your hotel.