Review by Matt Harmeling on 13 June 2005
Located in suburban Chicago, the Brookfield Zoo offers visitors a vast array of animals housed for the most part in spacious, naturalistic environments. It sits about 20 minutes from downtown Chicago and is accessible by expressway. People who have visited Chicago's other Zoo in Lincoln Park are missing a real gem by choosing to check out the closer option. The zoo itself is very large and difficult to see in one day for the casual patron.
There is a great deal of space between exhibits, something that may try the patience of some zoogoers. On the other hand, walks between exhibits are filled with views of beautiful fountains, countless flower gardens, and even a large wooded park area on one side of the zoo. The zoos exhibits are on par with the best in the country. Most are geographically oriented and try to maintain a tight focus on a particular habitat.
The Swamp, which houses otters, wading birds and other marshland animals is quite naturalistic. It's centerpiece is an alligator enclosure equipped with a skylight. In The Fragile Kingdom exhibit, guests experience two separate biomes. One path takes you through the desert to view fascinating creatures such as caracals, hyraxes and aardwolves in areas of considerable size and authenticity for an indoor exhibit. The opposite side allows visitors to view rainforest animals. The aspect of the rainforest that is perhaps the most unique is the canopy level view of fishing cats and clouded leopards. This invites viewers to look down into the exhibit from the niche the cats frequent. The "grandaddy" of the often employed indoor jungle exhibit is also located at the Brookfield.
Tropic World is housed in a warehouse sized building, and is made up of multispecies rainforest exhibits divided into three regions (South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa). Each exhibit is viewed from a trail perched in the middle of the building. Perhaps it's most intriguing characteristic is the species mixing. In the South American third, tapirs live alongside giant anteaters and howler monkeys.
In the African third, pygmy hippopotamus live among a family of mandrills. The interaction between species is a rare treat. The only downside to this is a lack of access to the outdoors for the exhibit's primates in warmer months. In a city like Chicago's winters, however, the benefits likely outweigh that shortcoming. Other excellent exhibits worth noting are the newly remodled Regenstein Wolf Woods, the African forest trail (with really nice exhibits featuring forest buffalo, okapi and african lungfish), and the South American coastline.
More excellent exhibits await at the Brookfield, in fact too many to mention in a brief critique. If you make it soon you may get the opportunity to see Carver, the oldest living wombat on record in the Australia house. The only real downer here is one shared by many older US zoos that being the dismal, run of the mill bear grottos. There seems to be a trend toward providing more space for large bears in American parks and with any luck the Brookfield will soon follow. All in all however, this zoo should stand among the Bronx and San Diego as one of the best in terms of authentic environs and variety of species on display.