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Falling in love with Miami-Metro Zoo

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This zoo was once considered one of the best in the country, but Hurricane Andrew took its toll in 1992. Though it hasn't returned to its former heights, it's not for want of trying. It certainly has cred with the animal welfare brigade.

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Opened in 1981, it was billed as a 'progressive' zoo: there are no cages or fences here, with animals cleverly enclosed by moat-style perimeters. Fortunately, zoos have been evolving more and more in this direction in recent years, and the Miami Metrozoo has been a world leader in the "cageless zoo" concept. And there are plenty of animals too: the site covers 940 acres, which is where the free monorail service comes in handy. Animal-wise, all the old faves are present, from elephants and rhinos to storks and flamingos, bears, camels, kangaroos, tigers and monkeys. For kids, there's a wildlife carousel ride and Paws, a petting zoo with pony rides and meerkats, along with shows in the amphitheatre and animal feedings. Other big draws include Dr Wilde's World, featuring a 500-gallon aquarium, and amphibians, reptiles and insects, and the largest open-air Asian aviary in the western hemisphere, with more than 70 bird species.

Miami Metrozoo is a very spacious facility planted with exotics in the midst of a native pineland preserve 15 miles southwest of downtown Miami. It was relocated from Key Biscayne in 1980 and mostly built in the early 80s according to a well-designed master plan. It is largely composed of many excellent open habitats for large mammals set along wide paths and linked together by an overhead monorail route. Its layout is basically several large looping pedestrian routes that connect at a central point; each of the routes undulate back and forth in their courses, intertwined with the smoother curves of the monorail track above. This zoo is a master of the open naturalistic habitat, utilizing low moats (usually dry) in front of lengthy viewing areas that are set back just enough that the moats become visually minimized; gently sloping open (and usually grassy) animal habitats dotted with mature trees; ha-has hidden by the gently sloping land of the habitats to give the illusion of no back containment; open landscapes beyond the habitats that appear to be part of them, backed by exotic forests; and rocky outcrops on the sides of the habitats that hide holding facilities. Some of the habitats are double-stacked, with a habitat close to the viewing area and a habitat (usually for the same species) in back that effectively increases the viewing opportunities of individuals that may need to be separated. Including these doubles, there are a staggering 50 or so of these consistent open enclosures, most of them for hoof stock but they also contain large carnivores and birds and apes and monkeys. Although a few have viewing caves set within their side rock outcrops, detailing within most of the habitats is on the basic side and 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 simplified. A few smaller animal enclosures are scattered between the larger signature habitats, but most are concentrated in several themed exhibit complexes, the largest of which by far is the fine new Amazon and Beyond.

Being such an open and pleasant-weather zoo, in fact, Metrozoo is the only zoo in the continental United States that has a subtropical climate, buildings are kept to a minimum for both exhibits and visitor services, and those that do exist are mostly low nondescript basic structures rather than exotically themed cultural recreations. (Only two of the animal habitats contain cultural recreations.) Collection strengths are certainly hoof stock (except goats/sheep), large carnivores, apes and monkeys, and now South American reptiles and amphibians with Amazon and Beyond. Birds are more limited but are very strong where present, mostly Asian birds and storks/cranes. 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.

There are four modes of transportation around the zoo. Walking is my choice but it is a fairly exhausting route! A popular alternative despite the cost ($22 or $32 for a two 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 its route that encompasses most of the zoo; however, the views of the habitats are not especially great and the basic narration in the enclosed compartments is difficult to hear above the loud air conditioning within. 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, perhaps the reason I observed many patchwork refurbishing efforts to the stations that demonstrate a commitment to its operation. At least the monorail tracks do not directly cross over any of the animal habitats.

The Miami Metrozoo is a fantastic spot to take your children to and the Petting zoos offer plenty of "edutainment" programs to keep everyone busy and interested.

Kids just love to see animals... Wouldn't it be great if we could visit zoos where the animals weren't penned up in cages? One of my favorite spots in the entire zoo is the stunning sight of a majestic white Bengal tiger in front of an archway that looked like it had been plucked from India. And from this point forward, winding walkways take you past Komodo dragons, gorillas, the highly-endangered black rhinoceros, African elephants, while your children all excited and anxious run ahead to see what's next. Metrozoo does more than display these animals, however; it's won awards for the successful breeding or endangered species. And 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!

I had not been to the Miami Metro zoo in several years and I must say the Miami zoo has made several improvements, including some many ways of getting around and in case you are wondering, to help you and your family fight the heat, the Miami zoo installed cool zones throughout the park. These blue polls spray a cold mist on people who pass by.

You'll find the zoo in South Miami, about 20 miles southwest from downtown. Driving is definitely the best way to get here, as it's the least hassle 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.

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