MIAMI, July21, 2014 — Until Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, Miami Metro Zoo was considered one of the best in the country; it still holds its top-ten rating.
The rebuilt animal wonderland still has a way to go to return to its former heights, but it’s not for want of trying. The zoo has certainly earned credibility with the animal welfare brigade.
Miami Metro Zoo relocated from Key Biscayne in 1980, opening in 1981. A leader in the progressive zoo category, the animals were displayed without cages or fences. Instead, they were cleverly enclosed by moat-style perimeters, making the zoo a world leader in the “cageless zoo” concept.
Some habitats are stunning. The stunning sight of a majestic white Bengal tiger in front of an archway that looks like it has been plucked from India is exhilarating for young and old alike.
Winding walkways take you past Komodo dragons, gorillas, the highly-endangered black rhinoceros, and African elephants. Each display begs visitors to linger, even as their children, excited and anxious, run ahead to see what’s next.
As it did before Andrew, the zoo features many excellent open habitats for large mammals set along wide paths and linked together by the overhead monorail. It is laid out as several large, looping pedestrian routes that connect at a central point. Each route undulates back and forth over the zoo’s 940 acres. The habitats are filled with zoo standards: elephants, rhinos, storks and flamingos, bears, camels, kangaroos, tigers and monkeys.
Metro Zoo creates its naturalistic habitats with low, concrete moats (usually dry) in front of lengthy viewing areas. These are set back just enough to visually minimize the concave, concrete barriers. This allows visitors look over gently sloping open (and usually grassy) animal habitats dotted with mature trees to give the illusion of no back containment; open landscapes beyond the habitats appear to be exotic forests.
Rocky outcrops on the sides of the habitats hide holding facilities. Some of the habitats are double-stacked, with one habitat close to the viewing area, another (usually for the same species) set further back. This effectively increases the viewing opportunities. These double habitats — there are a staggering 50 or more — are mostly occupied by hoofed animals like zebras and rhinos, but they also contain large carnivores, birds, apes and monkeys.
Although a few habitats have viewing caves set within their side rock outcrops, detailing within most of the habitats is on the basic side. It could be improved in some for a more naturalistic effect to match the excellent spatial effect. Many have central shallow ovoid concrete-lined pools that are too simple to be visually enticing to visitors.
A few smaller animal enclosures are scattered between the larger habitats, but most are concentrated in several themed exhibit complexes, the largest of which is the new Amazon and Beyond. Exhibits and visitor service buildings are are mostly low, nondescript, basic structures rather than exotically themed cultural recreations.
Collection strengths are certainly hoof stock (except goats/sheep), large carnivores, apes and monkeys, and now, with Amazon and Beyond, South American reptiles and amphibians. Birds are more limited but are very strong where present — mostly Asian birds and storks/cranes.
The American Bankers Family Aviary Wings of Asia is a testament to the variety of animals kept here; over 300 rare, endangered and exotic birds live in the largest open-air aviary in America, including the only known captive Sultan Tit in the western hemisphere.
The exhibit of the aviary focuses on the link between the birds and dinosaurs. These creatures are closely related and it is believed that the birds in the aviary are direct descendants of the giants, once believed to be related solely to lizards.
Geographically, the collection is strong for Africa, Asia, and South America. It is weak for Australia, and nearly non-existent for Europe and North America.
Amazon and Beyond is the newest exhibit; it opened on December 6, 2008. Twenty-seven acres (10.9 ha) are dedicated to the flora and fauna of tropical America found in four distinct areas: Village Plaza, Cloud Forest, Amazonia, and Atlantic Forest-Pantanal.
The first area provides a guests a feel of the unique cultures found in Central and South America. The remaining three areas represent native habitats that are found in the Amazonian region.
There are four modes of transportation around the zoo. Walking is a first choice, but it makes for an exhausting day. A popular alternative despite the cost — $22 or $32 for a 2-hour rental must certainly translate to a bonanza for the zoo — is the Safari Cycle rental, with two sizes of canopied four-wheel cycles with multiple pedals. Most of the paths are wide enough to accommodate throngs of these for viewing the zoo, and indeed the rental station for these is immense.
A narrated motor-driven tram tour of either of the two main loops is also available for $4.95, while an all-day pass to the monorail is $3. The four monorail stations are spaced evenly along a route that encompasses most of the zoo; however, the views of the habitats from the monorail are not great, and the basic narration in the enclosed compartments is difficult to hear above the loud air conditioning.
Despite the shortcomings and some repairs here and there, the monorail is the only transportation from the back of the zoo to the front at closing time for tired visitors. The monorail tracks do not directly cross over any of the animal habitats.
The Miami Metro Zoo is a fantastic destination for your children, and Paws — the petting zoos — offer plenty of “edutainment” programs to keep everyone busy and interested. The Samburu Giraffe Feeding Station (open daily from 11am to 4pm) allows you to climb up and see a giraffe eye-to-eye. For a $2 fee, you’ll have the opportunity to reach out and feed these graceful creatures.
They’ll take the food right out of your hand!
The Miami Metro Zoo does more than display animals; it’s won awards for the successful breeding of endangered species. Among the newest members of the zoo are the critically endangered baby addux “Abacus” and a critically endangered baby black rhino. You can also see white tigers, gibbons, Cuban crocodiles, camels, okapis and koalas, as well as the regular lions, tigers and bears.
The coolest animal stunt is the painting elephant — a real elephant, armed with a paintbrush and easel, creating a masterpiece!
The Miami Metro Zoo is also making a foray into the dramatic arts and culture with Zootroupia. Partnered with the Miami Performing Arts Center, actors will be presenting performances around the zoo at special times.
The zoo has received numerous improvements in the last decade, including multiple ways to maneuver through the property, the always helpful staff, and to help you and your family fight the heat, the Miami Zoo has installed cool zones throughout the park that spray a continuous, cooling mist.
You’ll find The Miami Metro Zoo in South Miami, about 20 miles southwest from downtown. Driving is definitely the best way to get there and parking is free. Public transportation is available via the Coral Reef Max bus, which provides service from the zoo to the Dadeland South Metrorail station.
The zoo is open year-round from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., though you should make sure to arrive before 4 p.m. when the ticket booth closes. Basic admission ranges from $11 to approximately $16, and there are discounts available for large groups, AAA members, military personnel and seniors.