Monday, October 26, 2009

Travel Review: Seattle's Own Woodland Park Zoo

Ah, Woodland Park Zoo. Home to a menagerie of beasts, humans and animals alike, Woodland Park Zoo sits nestled between groves of variant trees, city parks and people's homes.

Yep, it's right in the middle of the suburbs.

Gorillas, elephants, flamingoes, and even red pandas live their daily life in exhibits that are visually appealing and as natural as possible - for tigers and zebras living in the Northwest. The zoo has come a long way from its inception in 1887 when a gentleman by the name of Guy Phinney had a vision to create a peaceful place for people and animals to mingle. He did just that, even so much as threatening to kill a dog on sight for invading the peaceful place. That's quite a legend to live up to.

And Woodland Park Zoo has done just that.

They have won numerous awards for the living spaces they have created, as well as been the forerunners in several categories of green and eco-friendly awareness. Their rose test garden is the only test garden of its kind to use nothing but earth-friendly measures to bring its blooms and blossoms into the light. Pretty remarkable for a place that must rely on memberships, daily visitors, and generous donors, along with some government funding, to sustain itself. They even go so far as to sell Zoo Doo (the poo of many, many, many animals and sometimes their used bedding) to homeowners and garden-lovers to raise money and awareness. Keeping it green and clean should be their motto.

Okay, onto the review.

The park itself is wide and expansive, with neat trails and sitting spots, and great places for picnics. Parking at the zoo is also quite broad with the main entrance in the south, which also tends to be the most congested. The north lot is usually pretty open and there's a great play place for the kids to burn off any extra energy they didn't already spend at the zoo. Along the west entrance, there are two little side parking lots with a few spaces here and there, but they also tend to be available, depending on what time of day you go. Parking along the streets can be a challenge, as most residents must have city-accepted vehicle tags that allow them to park in front of their homes for more than a few hours at a time. This method of parking to avoid the $5 parking fee can make for more of a headache than the five dollars is worth.

Pay it. It'll save you the pain.

Not to mention the agony of walking back pushing strollers, tired kids, and goodness knows what else weaving through traffic, sidewalks and side streets just to save five measly dollars. You did just drop nearly twenty to get in.

And that's just for yourself.

Yep. It's $19.95 bucks for adults to gain entry into the zoo, during peak season. May seem like a bit much, but you know it is going to a good cause - animal awareness and education - not to mention, the fun of a great day. During the off-season (October-April), fees fall a bit lower at a mere $13.75 for adults, but the kiddies have it a little cheaper: Kids (3-11) are $9.25 a head in the off-season and $12.25 during the peak and toddlers aged two and under are always free. Seniors 65 and up, as well as anyone disabled, qualify for an automatic $2 discount. You can also print out a $2 savings coupon online or find coupons in the Chinook Book or Entertainment Book each year.

The best bet is just to buy a membership if you live in the area, plan to go more than once during your visit, or live somewhere that has a reciprocal zoo membership. That's right. A reciprocal zoo membership. I purchased my membership earlier this year because I knew I wanted to go more than once (plus, I live here) and I also knew that there are several other zoos nearby who offer this great reciprocity deal. Here's how it works: if the zoo is on the list, you get in free. Awesome, right? And with a membership, all the kids are included, you can put your spouse on there and if you have a friend who wants to join you, they can get in half-price (or you can use one of your freebies, if your membership has them). It's really a great deal and so worth the money. You might even want to spring for the AquaZoo Membership which includes entrance to any number of aquariums, as well as the zoos, around the country and in Canada too.

I have used my membership to visit Portland's zoo and in the spring, I hope to check out British Columbia's zoo that's also on the list.

So, now that we've got you in, let's take a look around. Depending on where you enter, you might just start out on the Northwest Trail (northern entrance), take a spin on the antique carousel, safari around Africa (the southern entrance) or visit the rare red pandas and smelly flamingoes (western entrance). Either way, it doesn't matter where you enter, you'll find that the entire park weaves in and out in a circular pattern so where you start is where you'll eventually end up. Hours and hours later, if you look at everything.

Frankly, this zoo is huge.

I've been to many, many zoos around the country and Woodland Park's is one of the finest. It's easy to get around, has lots of great stopping places, benches and even options to rent scooters and strollers (which I may take up one of these days), and really great food. The exhibits are clean and easy to access and yet, you feel as though you are spying on the creatures, not staring at them through bars. Some living spaces still have that caged feel, but Woodland Park has done away with most of them. Back in the day, when it was all the rage, and really, we all know it was because they just didn't know better and our animal education was severely lacking, the animals lived in metal cages with concrete bottoms.

Not a pretty sight or pleasant for anyone.

And definitely a thing of the past.

Woodland Park Zoo has worked hard to overcome that appalling display of animal cagery and has filled its bulging insides with tree-lined paths that feel more like trails with places for us to poke our heads through to try and see something. It's us who has to do the work. They just live there. And that's the way it should be.

On a recent visit to The Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver, I learned that big cats become stressed and severely territorial when people are allowed to walk along their cages. They spray and become aggressive because they think we're invading their territory - or that we might. And who can blame them? That's how we would feel if someone kept walking up to our house and staring in at us through our front window. We'd be ill at-ease too. So, this particular animal protection site created a walkway that goes above the cats - and they have a lot of them - and just like that, stress is gone. The cats were rolling around like kittens with their bellies up and paws in the air, not a care in the world that we were standing high above them. They felt safe and at peace. Something all zoos should be aware of.

Speaking on that topic, that is one of my few beefs with Woodland Park Zoo. Their cat enclosures are at eye-level to the big cats and one Siberian tiger always seems to be on edge. The jaguar exhibit has the same problem and the one cat in there paces and paces and paces. Their demeanors were nothing like what I witnessed at The Wild Animal Sanctuary. I will have to tell you more about that later. Amazing place.

Back to the zoo.

But before I do, I have one last comment on this particular topic. I know. I keep saying that I'll move on. I promise. Just one more comment. A friend and I went to the Oregon Zoo down in Portland and had the most unusual experience there. We walked up to the mountain lion exhibit and there was a large glass window where she made her den. The huge (and I do mean HUGE) female cougar walked right up to the glass, sniffed it, stared at all of us staring at her, and laid down like she could have cared less. I have never seen a big cat with that kind of attitude, except at The Wild Animal Sanctuary, and that cat was also a puma, aptly named Romeo. Quite remarkable. I must read more about them.

Okay, back to Woodland Park Zoo. See, I told you.

Above and beyond all the great, natural animal settings, the zoo also has a fantastic food court. They offer a variety of natural, organic and free-range options, as well as vegetarian and locally sourced treats. It's quite phenomenal what they offer when you think about the main fare as being burgers, fries and shakes. They also serve everything on compostable plates with compostable glasses and silverware and you will not find one single straw anywhere in the zoo. Why? Because people throw them into cages, that's why. We're irresponsible and because such things are incredibly dangerous to those animals, we just have to do without. So be it. Until we learn better.

My favorite part of the zoo is, of course, the animals. And Woodland Park Zoo has some truly unique ones. They have African and Asian elephants; lions, tigers, and grizzly bears (oh, my); emus, and kangaroos; arctic foxes and wolves (which I finally saw for the first time ever on my most recent visit); a beautiful eagle enclosure with both baldies and goldens; a bird-feeding habitat (where you buy bird seed on a stick for a buck and stick your hand out hoping someone won't poop on you before they eat all the seed); the rare snow leopard and her cubs (which are a treat and quite exotically rare, especially breeding successfully in captivity, which they have most recently done); a lively and all-too-human gorilla troupe (with a grandma gorilla who likes to sit in front of the glass and watch all the kids make faces at her. I don't have any pictures of her, but all the pictures in this review are from Woodland Park Zoo); siamangs (which make the most lovely and laugh-inducing sounds early in the day); zebras and hippos that eat pumpkins on YouTube; pink flamingoes and free-roaming peacocks; and so, so much more. It is a place you could spend all day and then some.

Go back and then go back again. It's really a great place and a lot of fun to be.

Visit for more information.

Happy travels!


  1. Reading this post makes me want to take my kids to the zoo right away. =) The Wild Animal Sanctuary sounds great, too. Too bad we won't be near Denver anytime soon. =)

  2. Megan-

    I love our zoo. It's quaint and homey and a real boost for animal education. I don't see many sad or dejected animals there which leads me to believe they work really hard at keeping them happy. A caged life can be difficult and I've seen it many times at other zoos. The two exceptions are the big cats I mentioned. I will have to write a review of the Wild Animal Sanctuary and post some picts. It's an amazing place and quite the adventure. They have free roaming lions and tigers. It's wild!

  3. For anyone who is interested, these pictures were taken with my own camera. I hope you enjoy them and get out to see the animals soon! Go play outside!