This is Zoo-per! New breeds of fun at Philadelphia Zoo

Just passing through: Dimitri, an Amur tiger, gets his photo taken while walking in the Big Cat Crossing, part of the Zoo360 trail system at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Just passing through: Dimitri, an Amur tiger, gets his photo taken while walking in the Big Cat Crossing, part of the Zoo360 trail system at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Posted: June 07, 2014

Walking along the main path at the Philadelphia Zoo, Beth Caruso passed a gift shop and hot dog stand to her left and the First Niagara Big Cat Falls exhibit to her right. But what stopped her in her tracks was overhead.

Just 14 feet above, the 320-pound Amur tiger Dimitri loped across the mesh-enclosed Big Cat Crossing - the newest canopy section to open in the innovative $7.7 million Zoo360 trail system. Dmitri then retraced his steps in the 330-foot-long pathway before settling down for a look-see at the agape zoo visitors below.

"Unbelievable," said Caruso, who was chaperoning a field trip from St. James Elementary in Red Bank, N.J. "This is why I came to the zoo. It's more exciting." Dmitri was close enough for visitors to marvel at his giant-sized paws and teeth as sharp as teppanyaki knives. Soon his twin brother, Wiz, joined him in the overlook.

This summer, the nation's first zoo is bursting with reasons to visit. Besides the campuswide Zoo360 animal exploration trail system - considered the first of its kind in the world - the zoo also boasts the remade children's petting area KidZooU, a revived Channel 6 ZooBalloon, and a variety of interactive exhibits.

"I think it's the best way to spend the day with your family," says Andy Baker, chief operating officer of the zoo and an expert in animal behavior. "Of course, I'm a little bit biased. But it's an authentic experience. . . . It's really about experiencing amazing wildlife with your family and your friends."

One of the most intriguing elements is the more than 2,200 feet of mesh tunnels added since 2011 that link habitats. Zoo360 allows for serendipitous and up-close-and-personal views of the big cats (lions, pumas, snow leopards, and jaguars also will get turns) and many other species, from lemurs to orangutans, with only a bit of mesh in between.

"You're seeing animals in a nontraditional way," said Tammy Schmidt, curator of carnivores. "For them to burst out on the scene from their home base - wow! - what an amazing opportunity to see them make a choice. It's problem-solving. It keeps their minds going."

At Treetop Trail, which opened in 2011, monkeys and lemurs can access 1,735 feet of flexible stainless steel mesh that includes two lookouts suspended in trees. The small primates can roam far afield from the Rare Animal Conservation Center and up into the trees. In 2012, the Great Ape Trail was completed for orangutans and gibbons. Eventually, bears and gorillas also will use extensions of this trail.

"It gets a little bit like air traffic control," Baker joked.

For visitors, the experience offers a glimpse at more active animals in a dynamic setting. Recently, tigers and orangutans eyed each other curiously from their respective tunnels.

"Overall, the intent of the trail system is to reinvent the way the animals experience the zoo," Baker says. "It gives them a much richer experience.

"It shifts the perspective on the visitor experience as well," he said. "You get a sense of the big cats as predators and top-level carnivores. It creates a lot of the unexpected. It's a little more like your own safari in 42 acres in Fairmount Park."

On a recent day at the Treetop Trail, a red-capped mangabey streaked around the elevated mesh tunnel, part of which encircles the Philly Pretzel Factory pit stop for visitors. As a couple of humans ate pretzels dipped in cheese, the mangabey stopped at stations along the path to snack on carrots and drink some water before galloping on its way. A toddler followed the mangabey's path from the ground with delight.

"It's really cool," Aidan Fleming, 13, of Haddon Township said of Zoo360.

For an even more intimate encounter, the KidZooU, opened last year, features "a contact area" - the name for what used to be the petting zoo. Youngsters can brush rare goats and interact with sheep, chickens, and ducks; enjoy a slide, and engage with exhibits that focus on conservation and ways to protect wildlife habitat.

A climbing tower brings children eye-to-eye with primates using the trail system. Indoors, interactive exhibits galore await. Discover butterflies, domestic rats (great pets, apparently), ants, and fish.

Besides the newer attractions, the zoo has plenty of oldies but goodies, including the elegant Swan Boats, the beautiful Amazon Rainforest Carousel, and the popular pony and camel rides.

Sometimes, though, distance gives the most wondrous perspective. The ZooBalloon seemed fated to stay forever grounded. This winter's severe snowstorms damaged its envelope beyond repair, Baker said.

Zoo visitors, however, were abuzz on social media with disappointment, many lamenting they had never gotten around to making the trip. The zoo responded. This year, a new Channel 6 ZooBalloon was inflated to "soar once more." The 10-minute ride that travels 400 feet into the air offers stunning views of Fairmount Park and the city skyline.

"For everybody who had it on their bucket list," Baker said, "they have the opportunity to have it back for one more chance."

If You Go

Philadelphia Zoo, 34th Street and Girard Avenue.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week.

Admission: $20 adults, $18 children 2 and up, free under 2.

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