By Mark Weber
If you’re like me, you’ve lived in Western New
York most of your life, and you’ve been to the Buffalo Zoo before, but it’s
been a while since you’ve been back.
I can’t even remember the last time I actually
went to the Buffalo Zoo, though I do remember they used to have prairie dogs in
a big circular outdoor pit, running around, popping in and out of holes much to
the delight of onlookers. Those prairie dogs are long gone, as the zoo has
changed dramatically in the past decade or two.
Thinking back to when I was a child growing up
in the 1980s, my only knowledge of what a zoo looked like came from my grade
school visit to the Buffalo Zoo. At the time, the cages were spartan and
grossly outdated. The place looked like it hadn’t been updated–not just in
years–in decades. It was actually a fairly depressing looking zoo back in the
1980s, as I came to discover after visiting other cities’ zoos since then.
In the past ten years, I’ve been to zoos (and
their cousins, aquariums) in Toronto, Columbus, Chattanooga, Houston, and
Norfolk. And just last Spring, I enjoyed Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in Orlando,
which is not technically a zoo, but definitely a place that shows off exotic
animals in the most modern of ways–a bouncy safari ride through the
So I’ve seen a lot of wild animals presented
in the most interesting ways these past couple years, and before Buffalo’s St.
Patrick’s Day parade this year, some friends and I happened to drive by the zoo
and noticed a tall, new building dominating the scene: Rainforest Falls.
I had seen advertisements announcing
Rainforest Falls, the zoo’s major, recent addition, but it was a coupon I
received in the mail that caused me to say to some friends, including one
visiting from Philadelphia, that it might be a nice way to spend a Saturday
afternoon. Indeed, it was.
On March 28, which would typically be a
freezing, cold, overcast day, the Buffalo-area weather was sunny with blue
skies and about 62 degrees–perfect weather for being outside. The line to get
inside the Zoo extended far beyond its gate, all the way down Parkside Avenue
to the point where it looked like people were waiting to get into a concert or
a Sabres game; in other words, everyone and their brother was in line to get
into the Zoo on the last Saturday of March 2009.
There were plenty of families with strollers
and lots of kids with grins on their faces as I waited in line with my friends.
Having had a long, dreary winter, all of us were happy to be outside for once,
on a very nice day, so the wait wasn’t “that bad.” All in all, I
think it was about a twenty-five minute wait just to get inside. After spending the afternoon there, I
can understand why I wasn’t the only one with the idea that a visit there was a
great way to spend the day.
Upon walking in, my friends and I looked over
to the left where there were three Asian elephants being lead around and
exercised by three keepers, including one who had a camera and took photos of
the one elephant rising up on its hind legs and then striking various model
poses. Soon the three grey elephants joined in a line, snout-to-tail holding on
to one another, and walking around their display area to the delight of the
audience. A little girl exclaimed, “It’s like the circus!” Everyone
watching the elephants was mesmerized by their gentle beauty.
After the elephants, it was time to see the
zoo’s different bears. As you turn the corner, first you come upon a speckled
black bear, then a gigantic polar bear, followed by a smaller, more active
polar bear, and finally two giant brown bears that looked like they were right
out of a Disney movie–the kind you’d want to hug if they weren’t real. The
bears were impressive.
Not far from the bears there were two
rhinos–an adult and a child–on display, along with giraffes (including one just
born in January), antelope, a hyena, three or four zebras, and some other
animals with names I wasn’t that familiar with. While I enjoyed seeing all of
those animals in their outdoor displays, my friends and I were most intrigued
by the tall, new building–home to Rainforest Falls, the main reason I chose to
visit the Buffalo Zoo.
When we made our way to the Rainforest Falls’
doors, we actually had to wait outside with a crowd for about five minutes
because–get this–a monkey had escaped inside and was running loose! I had a
smile on my face when two zookeepers with giant nets came bursting out the
doors announcing that it was safe to go back inside!
Inside Rainforest Falls, besides an
attractive, interactive museum-like front room where you can read about and see
videos of actual South American rain forests, the real attraction here is
beyond the one door where you enter into a two or three story room that
magically transports you from Buffalo to Venezuela. If you ever went to the
Wintergarden in Niagara Falls in the 1980s, Rainforest Falls is like that
except much, much better, complete with colorful birds in pink, neon orange,
blue and yellow, a funny looking, pacing anteater you simply must see to believe,
along with what look like giant guinea pigs, little alligators, vampire bats,
turtles, and the most fun-to-watch monkeys in the zoo! All of this is capped
off by a giant waterfall which you can literally walk in front of on a plank
bridge, as well as stand behind and feel the cool spray as you gaze out into
the exotic, bright room. There’s even a second-floor observation deck where you
can feel like you’re in the trees right next to the monkeys as they run along
the branches and play with one another. Rainforest Falls alone is worth the
price of admission to the Buffalo Zoo!
The zoo has been renovating some of its older
areas, so there’s a bit of construction going on. The really old building that
the monkeys were caged up in, years ago, is closed–thankfully, yet walking
outside behind it on the “Vanishing Animals” path, there are a few
spots where you can watch monkeys in modern settings climb, swing, and play
around. When two monkeys started getting intimate, a mom instantly turned to her
kids and said, “Ok, time to go; where are the juice boxes?” That made
me laugh out loud.
There were three lions on view–two females and
one male–but they were hard to see and their display area was dated. Also, the
Gorilla Habitat, housed in an indoor building that looks the same as it did in
the 1980s, smelled so bad that my friends and I only got a glimpse of one
gorilla as we ran to get outside as fast as we could.
There were a bunch of bison on display outside
behind the gorilla building, but they weren’t that easy to see from inside the
zoo. Because it’s called the Buffalo
Zoo, you’d hope they could highlight the bison better. If the Zoo
were a restaurant, the bison have the table near the kitchen door instead of the
one near the fireplace, if you know what I mean.
While several other animals were on display in
outdoor exhibits, including reindeer, otters, and a striking peacock with the
bluest of blue coloring, the other biggest highlight of the zoo visit (besides
the new Rainforest Falls mentioned earlier) was most definitely the Sea Lion
Cove. I wouldn’t have known this was even in the zoo if my friend hadn’t heard
the sea lions loud barking noises coming from behind some walls. My friends and
I made our way around a curve and discovered a perfect spot to watch three
giant sea lions frolicking in the water, going in and out of their own unique
pool house. The one sea lion seemed to be making playful advances toward the
other sea lion, and with lots of loud barking involved and some nose kissing
and fin caressing, it was quite a spectacle to witness from just a few short
My friends and I were very impressed with the
Buffalo Zoo. We liked how you could see it all in one visit, unlike the
“too big” Toronto Zoo. Also, we were happy that almost all the
animals we wanted to see were on display in a way that we could easily see them–not
hidden from view like my experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Finally, for
the price of admission and the ease of getting there and parking in the zoo’s
easy-to-use lot, we all agreed it was an affordable way to spend a fun, sunny
day in Buffalo. I’m already making plans for my next visit, which will be with
Rochester friends who have two little kids. The Buffalo Zoo is a must-see
attraction for Western New York residents and visitors alike.
Mark Weber is a pop-jazz singer who