Philadelphia Zoo

Technically we are already in Autumn but we decided to have a “last days of summer” outing this weekend, to bask in the blazing sunshine and have some family fun.  Our family membership to Elmwood Park Zoo (which we had scored half price) got us half price entry into Philadelphia Zoo so that was our chosen destination.  Even if we had never used our membership to visit Elmwood Park Zoo, we would still have saved $30 on our entry to the Philly Zoo so – dear thrifty readers – it may be worth checking out affiliated organisations for reciprocal arrangements when deciding which memberships to purchase.  But I digress…

Philadelphia Zoo was actually the first zoo in America, dating as it does from the Reconstruction era.  Vintage zoos in Europe tend to be pretty bleak and depressing places so the Philly Zoo surprised me with being so contemporary.  There were barely any traces of it being historic at all.  I was pretty impressed with the enclosures which helped assuage my guilt about visiting a zoo and there was also lots of information around the place about their conservation efforts and captive breeding programmes.

There was a rare and endangered species area that enabled us to see, for the first time, some animals we had never seen in real life before, from monkeys with soulful eyes to a slouching sloth.  My 7 year old is obsessed with naked mole rats.  He has a cuddly one called Superdude and he bought another at the zoo, this one dubbed Superbud.  He was, therefore, ecstatic to see a whole pile of naked mole rats inside their tunnel enclosure.  Honestly, if we had gone all that way, paid the ticket price and only seen the naked mole rats, that boy would have been over the moon.  A lot of people think naked mole rats are ugly, little shrivelled phalluses with buck teeth, but I have to lump them in the “so ugly they’re cute” category.  All piled together, they were pretty adorable.  What I coveted, however, were the giant elephant shrews.  With their almost prehensile proboscises and their large dark eyes, they looked like cartoon characters.  If it was possible to have them as pets, I would be sorely tempted.

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Another highlight was the reptile and amphibian house.  The boys absolutely loved seeing all of the different types of snakes, discussing which ones were venomous and which ones were constrictors, which ones were exotic and which were locals.  They were thrilled – as in both excited and slightly scared – to see how many properly venomous snakes can be found in Pennsylvania.  There were also tiny, colourful, poisonous frogs, patterned frogs and a humungous bullfrog.  There were adult alligators and Nile crocodiles and a tank filled with baby alligators that had my kids clucking over them.  There were massive pythons and two huge anacondas.  My 5 year old loved the alligator snapping turtle, who was looking feisty and asserive in his tank, and my 11 year old was fascinated watching the pig nosed turtle glide back and forth in the water as if he was going for Olympic gold.  We were all hugely impressed by the king cobra who stretched up to an amazing height in order to try and intimidate us from behind the glass – thankfully behind the glass because I don’t think that snake was an altogether happy chappy.  I had no idea they could stretch up as tall as that.

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Around the zoo, there are overhead walkways, like enclosed gantries, that permit various creatures to go for a stroll.  We unfortunately did not see any of the big cats meandering around above our heads – though a keeper assured me that the leopards were in there – but we did see quite a few monkeys wandering around in them.  Strangely enough, therefore, the children’s play area was very reminiscent of these walkways.  My boys had a brief play there between animal encounters and it was all about scaling ropes, walking through tunnels and sliding down enclosed chutes.  The Naked Ape indeed.  Abutting the play area was our next stop: sheep and goats.  We were invited to walk among them and my youngest two boys immediately picked up brushes and started grooming them.  The goats were very docile and tolerant and there were these beautiful little grey sheep with silken, curled fleeces.


My 11 year old has an obsession with penguins so we headed off to see the penguins next.  He was not disappointed as there were penguins standing around, penguins gliding and flopping into the water, a batch of swimming penguins and even one rotating in a circle as it floated on its back trying to clean its foot.  Just as the 7 year old had been with the naked mole rats, so our oldest was with the penguins.


A hop, skip and a jump from the penguins brought us to an enclosure containing a rhino and a brace of zebras.  My 7 year old declared, “I know why they put the rhino in with the zebras – they want them to mate and make a unicorn.”  Oh.  Dear.  Still, you’ve got to hand it to the child for trying to will unicorns into existence somehow, even if he is being a bit “Island of Dr Moreau” about it.  Oddly, a few steps further on brought us to the bears, not all of whom were putting in an appearance.  We did get to see the Asian brown bear up close and were impressed by the enormous scale of his head.  Definitely not a teddy bear.  Alas, the polar bear was sunbathing rather than swimming in its pool.  Polar bears are tragically emblematic of the downside or underbelly of zoos.  All those poor demented polar bears pacing back and forth.  This one thankfully looked more content than any other polar bear I have seen but he or she was still on its own and in an enclosure that did not resemble its natural habitat.

At the Big Cat area, the Amur tigers were most impressive.  Big cats are usually found lolling around doing very little in zoos, definitely resembling giant moggies rather than apex predators, but the tigers were hugely active.  They were wandering around, coming right up to the glass, and at one point one of them lowered him or herself into the pool to cool down.  We were all delighted and stood enchanted watching them for ages.  We also saw a cougar on the move which is definitely the first time I have ever seen one in motion.

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The others were flagging at that point and needed a rest so my 7 year old and I decided to have one last creature encounter and headed off to the primate reserve.  We were glad we did so.  We saw an impressive looking male gorilla playing with toys and were delighted by a mother and child pair of orangutans who played beautifully with each other while the male rolled around on the floor munching fruit.  We also went into a pitch black area where we were able to view Aye-Ayes, a type of nocturnal lemur with long, skeletal fingers.  I had not anticipated them being as large as they were.  It was pretty magical to see such a creature for the first time.

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Children’s feet were tiring and they were beginning to flake in the heat of the sun so we decided to call it a day and head home after that.  We still had lots more to see so we will definitely need to return some time.  If you happen to travel to the Philly area and are looking for something that engages a range of ages then I would definitely recommend this zoo.


7 thoughts on “Philadelphia Zoo

    • Thank you. The difficulty with zoos is trying to balance out the whole conservation and raising awareness arguments against the fact animals are captive. It’s, therefore, easier to feel better about a zoo that’s actively engaged in breeding endangered animals or which has more stimulating enclosures for the animals. Philly zoo was certainly better in both regards than many European zoos I’ve visited but still seeing that lonesome polar bear didn’t feel good.

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  2. Yes, I too hate zoos in a way. Many of them are much better nowadays than they were some years ago. The one in Valencia (Spain) was appalling – I left there quite upset. I’m glad they have better enclosures for the animals in the US.
    Who can equal the experience of visiting a decent zoo with children? Seeing the animals yourself is fantastic, but seeing them through the eyes of a child is even more so. The photos of your sons are really lovely, and they look like they are having a blast. Thanks for sharing this family outing.

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