For many of our readers who grew up in the area, you no doubt have fond childhood memories of visiting the Knoxville Zoo. First opened all the way back in 1952 as the Municipal Zoo, the forested reserve has come a long way from those early days when its solo attraction was Al the alligator. Sporting a new name and dozens of additional acres added throughout the years, over eight hundred animals now call the gardened landscapes home.
Last week we decided to visit Zoo Knoxville since cooler weather has set in and the summer crowds have long since dispersed. Our main interest? Tiger Forest, 2017’s new exhibit and the first portion of the soon-to-be-completed Asian Trek. When visitors first walk through the zoo’s entry gates, they are now greeted by a new sight, the Shieh Family Pagoda. A brand new path begins at its base and descends through an area which the park’s rhinoceroses used to call home. As visitors approach the Temple of the Tiger, traditional Chinese music envelopes the area and adds to the immersive experience.
The first stop is at the white-naped crane enclosure. These majestic birds are found throughout southeast Asia, from China over to Japan, and are listed as threatened in the wild. It is hoped that the birds here will breed successfully in order to raise their dwindling numbers; one chick was already hatched over the spring, so the breeding program has had great success so far.
Entering the new temple, guests will come face to face with the Malayan tigers, Zoo Knoxville’s new stars. They once reigned supreme in the jungles of the Malaysian peninsula, but now they are critically endangered. Only several hundred remain throughout the world, with many of those located in zoos. Millions were invested in this state-of-the-art enclosure to ensure these cats have the best living conditions available. Much of the time they will be near the glass lounging on the rocks or swimming in the adjacent pool. We lingered far too long here, as this is by far one of the most thrilling exhibits to be found.
Beyond the peaceful Tiger Forest, the sound of construction jars visitors back to our own urban environment. Next year will see the opening of two more exhibits at Asian Trek, Gibbons Trails and Langur Landing. The first will give the park’s resident gibbons much more space than the current enclosure provides and will also feature a tree house for visitors to interact with the surrounding environment. Langurs will be a completely new addition to the zoo, so be sure to visit in 2018 to check out these new additions.
Several area paths are closed while this construction continues through the winter months, so visitors must detour through Kids Cove in order to visit the reptile and otter exhibits. While the otters are almost always frolicking in the water, many of the reptiles are away for the season due to cold weather. About half of the remaining reptile enclosures are empty as well, with large banners announcing the opening of a new reptile and amphibian center in 2020. This area was closed earlier in the year after multiple reptilian residents died from an undetermined toxin. While the remaining animals are no less interesting to look at, this area has clearly seen better days.
Returning through Kids Cove, families have the opportunity to check out some interactive play areas. A petting zoo, giant sandbox, and even a carousel are scattered throughout the childrens park. Local animals such as skunks and beavers call this area home, and we especially enjoyed the friendly raccoons. Check out the barn to see cornsnakes, rats, owls, and other animals which can be found on the farm. Nearby are pigs, chickens, and turkeys too.
Backtracking past Asian Trek, there is still so much more to see and do. Black Bear Falls is one of our favorite areas, despite opening over a decade ago. The prairie dogs are playful residents, but they were nowhere to be seen on our visit. We did get an awesome view of Zoo Knoxville’s famous celebrities, the adorable red pandas. African Plains is home to giraffes, rhinoceroses, baboons, elephants, and the great African lions. Camel rides are a favorite during the warmer months but are now closed for the season.
The path continues into the jungles of central Africa, where we had our most interesting encounter. Most of the chimps were snoozing in their sleeping quarters, despite the beautiful weather. The gorillas, however, were up and about, interacting with guests and having a good time. Gorilla Valley is home to three babies now, with baby Andi stealing the show. She was born this year and is an absolute joy to watch. The other babies, Ubantu and Obi, both came to the glass when they saw visitors approach and tried to scare them. A zookeeper was on hand to answer the plethora of questions we had, and the only reason we left was because it was approaching closing time.
This was our first time visiting the zoo in the off season and also during a weekday. There are of course pros and cons to visiting at any time of year. Almost all the restaurants and food stations were closed. Be sure to bring a water bottle, because the water fountains throughout the park were turned off. The Zoo Choo Train, bird show, and the splash pad were all closed as well. If visitors are more interested in seeing the animals in a much more relaxed environment without the jostle of crowds at every viewing station, this time of year is perfect. While some exhibits were closed for the season as already mentioned, the animals which were out seemed completely relaxed and acted more natural. This is a great time for adults and those with older children to visit. Another added benefit is that Kroger Discount Days have begun, with a $5 discount on admission all the way to the February 28th.