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Zooing it right

Photos by Martin Walls
Text by Kathleen Walls - American Roads Travel Magazine

Tucked away on the north side of Jacksonville, Florida snuggled up against the Trout River is one of the cityís hidden jewels, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The zoo sprang from modest beginnings. It grew along with the city to become the exquisite 120-acre jewel it is today. It all began on May 12, 1914 with one red deer fawn at its first location in the Springfield section. That was soon followed by a monkey island and other animals and rapidly grew until in 1925, it moved to its present location. One of the most significant acquisitions of that early zoo was a black jaguar they named Zorro. Zorro produced many offspring during his 19-year life span. These were sent to zoos all around the country and in 2003, a survey showed that all of the captive born black jaguars in North American zoos were a descendant of Zorro.

Today, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is a delight to behold. It consists of spacious exhibits where animals enjoy a life in conditions that closely replicate their native habitats. Once you enter through the Main Camp, you have a choice of exploring Australia, Africa, South America, Wild Florida or the Great Apes. Or, if the younger guests are restless and need to burn off a little energy, you can visit the Play Park.

One of the best ways to get more out of your visit is to attend the Keeper Talks. Feel free to ask questions and enjoy getting up close and personal with the zoo's inhabitants.

Each "country" is arranged off a central loop. Within each section other loops branch off so you will never get lost here. So get in the loop and lets "zoo" it right.

Florida Panther

No other mammal symbolizes Florida as much as the Florida Panther. Perhaps this is why it is the state animal. Once these beautiful cats ranged throughout Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and even into Texas. Today, they are threatened with extinction. Less than 100 exist in the wild and these are limited to southeast Florida, mainly the Big Cypress National Forest. They have been driven into this last refuge by increasing clashes with civilization. Loss of habitat and encounters with cars account for their decrease.

Visitors to the Jacksonville Zoo are privileged to have a rare glimpse into the lives of these elusive and vanishing cats.


One of the most expressive faces in any zoo is the chimpanzee. Perhaps it is because it is because their features are so similar to our own. They live, work and play in the high altitude tropical woodlands and savannas from Senegal to Tanzania in Africa. When I say "work," thatís literally. Like us they use "tools" such as twigs to dig out termites from their nest and sticks to enlarge anthill holes. They sleep in nests they build high in the branches of trees. These highly social primates have a complex family structure and a rudimentary form of language. They communicate by facial expressions and grunting noises. Like us they engage in grooming, touching, patting and even kissing.

They live in small groups of 15 to 120 individuals, which is very loosely organized. Young chimps learn by watching the older members of the group. Chimps may wonder from one group to another and then returning to their original group. The females do this more than the males, often in search of mates. Perhaps this is natures way of insuring a wide gene pool. Often mothers and offspring retain their connection for life.

Chimpanzees are predominately vegetarian but do eat an occasional hunted monkey, pig or antelope. Food gathering and processing techniques differ from group to group. These are one of natureís most intelligent species perhaps accounting for their ability to adapt and learn what works best for each individual

Roseate Spoonbill

These colorful birds are found from extreme southern United States south through Central Argentina

They are unique in the way it finds food. A Roseate Spoonbill uses its bill to locate food by touching it. The slightly open bill is swished from side to side in the shallow water as it wades. As soon as it detects food inside the beak, it slams it shut. They had been hunted almost to extinction in the early part of the twentieth century for their feathers, which were a popular adornment for womenís hats. In 1960, laws were enacted to protect them, and their numbers once again increased until now. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is not an endangered species.

American Black Bear

The American Black Bear has a wide range. They are found along the eastern seaboard of North America from Alaska to Northern Mexico and in parts of western United States. They are very adaptable so have learned to survive in closer proximity to humans than many other wild creatures. They are wonderful scavengers and have learned to raid garbage dumps and food left outdoors for pets, which often lead to bear human clashes. However, given a choice, bears are shy and will avoid humans if possible. Getting between a mother bear and her cubs are one of the most common reasons for bear attacks.

Unlike their cousins, the Grizzlies, they do not hibernate. In the northern part of their habitat, they will remain in their den and dormant in winter. In Florida they may build dens in trees or palmetto thickets but do not become dormant.

Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow Lorikeets are found in Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, the East Indies, parts of Tasmania and Polynesia. These brightly-colored members of the parrot family are very friendly and are know to be very comfortable around humans. Pairs mate for life and both take part in rearing the young. These little rainbows are highly vocal, especially at dawn and while feeding, and can mimic sounds perfectly. They will frequent homes that leave out fruit for them. Sometimes they become pests as large flocks have been known to devastate an orchard.


The jaguar is the third largest of the big cats and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. They range from the southwestern United States into South America. They can achieve speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. Jaguars usually hunt at night and kill with a crushing bite to the skull instead of going for the throat like most cats. Unlike house cats, they are excellent swimmers. In spite of their power and speed, they are shy and avoid humans. They are the source of many legends among native people. Early Olmecs, a prehistoric Mexican tribe, believed shamans and holy men could transform themselves into jaguars creating a long-standing legend of "Were-jaguars" This myth is also believed to be the basis of Aztec and Mayan rain gods.

The beauty and poise of these proud beasts is awe inspiring.

Black and White Ruffed Lemurs

Black and white ruffed Lemurs hail from Madagascar. They are tree dwellers and rarely use the ground to move about. At night their eyes are highly reflective. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that the word "lemur" means "ghost" or "spirits of the night" in Latin. Glands in their paws leave a sent that they use to mark their territory. A sharp index claw is used for grooming while their long tail provides balance. The lemur is well adapted for their lifestyle but still endangered due to their small range. A male and female will bond and remain together producing 1 to 3 young.

Ringtail Lemur

This is another sub-species of lemur. The Ringtails, like the Black and White Ruffed Lemurs, inhabit parts of Madagascar. Unlike their black and white brethren, these Prosimians spend about half of their time on the ground. Their society is matriarchal with a few non-dominant males sprinkled in. Their greatest social pastime is grooming and rubbing their sent on one anotherís tails. One way dominance is determined is when two strange Ringtail Lemurs meet they shove the ends of their tails in one anotherís faces. The one who backs down first looses face. Sort of like riding on a New York subway with someone who is not too particular about their bathing habits.

American Eagle

Zoos have animals for many reasons. Often the animals were born to captivity and would never survive in the wild. Some are there because they have been injured and can no longer cope in the wild. This proud sky rider has a damaged wing and cannot fly. At Jacksonville Zoo he and his enclosure mate will live out their days in comfort and safety.

Even injured, he still maintains the proud demeanor that made eagles our national bird.

Squirrel Monkey

These intelligent little fellows are native to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and a few other places in South America. Although not native to Florida, small populations have been observed in Southern Florida for over 100 years. They love the forest and especially areas near water. Squirrel Monkeys live in large troops with as many as 300 members. They spend most of their time in trees and eat insects and fruit mainly. They are now endangered mainly due to loss of habitat.

Play Park

Jacksonville Zoo is justly proud of its newest attraction, Play Park. Play Park is every child's idea of heaven. The little girl above is busy imagining she is a little hatchling in this kid sized bird nest. The area is a virtual kid zone of discovery through play. A splash ground, a rope climber that resembles a giant spider web, a forest camp where young explorers can "camp" and a native village complete with palm fronds to build the huts are just a part of this innovative playground. It doesnít hurt that there is a Animal Care Yard with pygmy goats, a train ride and a wildlife carousel nearby either.

Contact Information:
370 Zoo Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32218

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.