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Rekindling the Wild in Visitors' Hearts at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

By David Boegaard

One hundred years ago, zoos served primarily as collections of exotic animals, often started by private individuals. The aim was not so different from a circus -- a form of spectacle that showed all the amazing kinds of living beings that had developed across the planet. But over the last century, as humans have flourished and extended themselves into wild places throughout the world, a new purpose for zoos has emerged. Zoos still display animals to the great delight of crowds, of course.

But now they do so more as ambassadors for the animals, while behind the scenes zoos serve as the bedrock of worldwide efforts to preserve animal species in the wild. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens exemplifies the grandeur and beauty of modern zoos. With more than two thousand rare animals and thousands of varieties of plants, the Jacksonville Zoo has experiences to delight young and old.

Zoos are where wildlife conservation starts. The wonder that a child experiences when seeing a beloved animal up close and "in-person" often serves as the spark that lights the persistent fire of dedicated conservationists.

It might even be fair to think of the animals in the Jacksonville Zoo and other zoos as ambassadors who have come here from foreign lands to make us aware of the plight of their home-land. And the zoo animals are persuasive ambassadors, with more than 180 million people visiting U.S. zoos and aquariums last year alone - more than all professional sports games combined!

But the Jacksonville Zoo makes sure to go far beyond merely displaying animals. Because they also serve as a fully-integrated botanical gardens, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is able to give a richer experience of the animals. The Jacksonville Zoo is one of the few zoos that incorporates the gardens throughout the animal exhibits, creating a full, immersive understanding about the animals and plants that are native to each area of the world. "Visitors to JZG enjoy the holistic approach the facility takes when designing exhibits. Since JZG is a registered botanical garden, plants are a major focus to the guest experience," says Meers. Rather than seeing animals transported to a zoo, it is almost as though visitors are the ones transported, on a safari, seeing the animals in their natural habitat.

And the botanical gardens are beautiful in their own right. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens does not restrict its botanical gardens to animal habitats. The entire zoo is, itself, a lush botanical garden. In flowering seasons (which is most of the year in Jacksonville!) the gardens are easily worth a visit even for visitors who are indifferent toward animals.

For those with a desire to truly dig in and learn all about animals, their natural habitats, and the difficulties of conservation, the Jacksonville Gardens offers Guests an abundance of resources, including educational programs and tours. "Through our educational programs, we provide a visual picture of what the animals are facing in their natural habitats, and seeing these animals face-to-face has a much stronger impact than seeing them on television," said Lucas Meers, PR Coordinator for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

The Jacksonville Zoo's conservation efforts don't end with the presentation and maintenance of their animals. It would be a sad resignation if people were to accept that the only place for lions, tigers, bears and otters were in a zoo. And the zoo staff shares that feeling deeply. If you speak to anyone that works at an accredited Zoo, they are passionate about the animals they are caring for, and see them as members of an extended family. That's why the Jacksonville Zoo participates deeply in efforts across the world to preserve wild spaces and conserve the species who consider those places home.

The Jacksonville Zoo also pours constant investments into maintaining and renovating its exhibits and grounds, so each visit is likely to bring surprising new things. They recently renovated the Lorikeet aviary, for example, and are currently working on a new Manatee Critical Care Center for the rescue and rehabilitation of these graceful, native mammals. The Zoo is also at work on increasing the ever-popular Great Apes Loop to give visitors a more immersive experience. The new Loop will also include the largest troop of Mandrills in the USA. JZG supports the Jane Goodall Institute working to rehabilitate and reintroduce Mandrills to the wild.

Perhaps the most exciting new exhibit at the Zoo, however, is the award-winning Land of the Tiger. This 2.5 acre area features wreathed and wrinkled hornbills, Babirusa, Visayan warty pigs and Malayan and Sumatran tigers. Visitors walk through the exhibit as though they were on Sumatra, exploring the jungle in search of tigers who subtly flash in and out of view with barely a sound.

One thing is certain -- there's never a dull moment at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Whether you visit to experience the pristine beauty of botanical gardens, the thrill of the glint in a tiger's eyes, or the delight of the great apes as they play, you will find much to enjoy.

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