This delightful 40-acre zoo dates from 1889, when George W. Hall (aka "Popcorn George") brought his traveling circus to town. Employee claims for back wages forced Hall to relinquish his menagerie, and the animal entourage was purchased by a prominent Atlanta businessman who donated the collection to the city as the basis for a zoological garden in Grant Park. It grew considerably over the years and was a popular local attraction, but had fallen into disrepair by the mid-1980s. Director Terry Maple was brought in to rescue the zoo and oversee a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The turnaround has been dramatic. Today, Zoo Atlanta is one of the finest zoos in the country, with animals housed in large open enclosures that simulate their natural habitats. The zoo participates in breeding programs, many of them focusing on endangered species, and is home to endangered animals that include black rhinos, Sumatran orangutans, 19 western lowland gorillas, two African elephants, two Komodo monitors, and big-mouthed African dwarf crocodiles. The Australian-themed Outback Station in the Orkin Children's Zoo introduced two new species -- red kangaroos and kookaburras. The Living Treehouse, a revitalized home for drill baboons, Mona monkeys, and red ruffed lemurs, also houses an open-air aviary for 15 species of African birds. Turner Broadcasting made a $5-million donation in 2004, the single largest gift in Zoo Atlanta history. The money allowed the zoo to enhance the public offerings and educational programs in its Conservation Action Resource Center.
Currently, the exhibit creating the biggest stir is the Asian Forest, home to Lun Lun and Yang Yang, two giant pandas and their first offspring, Mei Lan, born in 2006 after a couple years of pressure on the two to procreate. The happy couple welcomed their second baby in 2008, much to the delight of the public and fans who kept up with the cub's progress via webcam on the zoo's website. The cub, named Xi Lan ("Atlanta's Joy" in Chinese), through a public vote -- by tradition remained unnamed until he was 100 days old -- was the only giant panda born in the U.S. that year. A third offspring was expected as this guide went into production. The two Chinese natives and their adorable offspring are a huge hit with adults and children alike. Although the pandas' rowdiest period is in the afternoon, they put on quite a show most of the day: munching bamboo, tussling with each other, playing on their log swing, or climbing on the swinging ladder. When Lun Lun has had enough of Yang Yang's roughhousing, she heads for the water. In the summer, the two can be especially entertaining; if it's really sweltering, zoo officials give each of them a huge block of ice to help them cool off. Yang Yang likes to hug his until it melts.
Your first stop at the zoo will probably be Flamingo Plaza. Farther on, Mzima Springs and Masai Mara house elephants, rhinos, lions, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and other African animals and birds. The landscape in this section resembles the plains of East Africa, with honey locust trees and yuccas, and the lion enclosure replicates an East African kopje (rocky outcropping). Frequent animal demonstrations, African storytelling, and educational programs take place under the Elder's Tree in Masai Mara. Here you'll find the young waterbuck, daughter of Kokopelli (who was aptly named for the ancient fertility god).
The lushly landscaped Ford African Rain Forest -- one of the most popular sections -- centers on four vast gorilla habitats separated by moats. Studies on gorilla behavior take place here, and there are usually quite a few adorable babies (they're hard to spot sometimes, so be sure to ask if there are any to be seen). The zoo's longtime mascot, Willie B. (named after former Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield), died in 2000, but his daughters Kudzoo and Olympia live in the forest and usually put on a pretty good show. The best time to visit is around 2pm, when the gorillas are fed. Also in this section are a walk-through aviary of West African birds, an exhibit of small African primates, and the Gorillas of Cameroon Museum. Landscaping includes burned-out areas of forest and deadfall trees -- gorillas do not live in manicured gardens. In addition, the rainforest is home to the zoo's African lions, including three cubs new to the property in 2008: Christos, Mikalos, and Athanaisi.
In the Ketambe section, several families of high-climbing orangutans show off their skills among the trees and bamboo clusters of an Indonesian tropical rainforest. If you're lucky enough to be here at feeding time -- around 2:30pm -- you might see them swinging on ropes from tree to tree. In the Sumatran Tiger Forest, rare Sumatran tigers prowl a lush forest, sometimes dipping into a stream or waterfall. Nearby is a superb Reptile House -- the zoo is home to one of the finest reptile collections in the country -- and a special exhibit area, often used to house visiting animals.
A zoo train travels through the Children's Zoo area. Here, you'll find a playground and petting zoo where kids can get friendly with llamas, sheep, pot-bellied pigs, goats, and more. There are aviaries here, too. Kids (and adults) will love the entertaining and informative free animal shows at the zoo; these shows are held in the Wildlife Theater during summer, and African elephant demonstrations are given daily year-round. The zoo's "Wild Like Me" indoor play experience highlights similarities between people and animals.
There are snack bars (including a McDonald's) throughout the zoo. You can also picnic in tree-shaded areas in Grant Park just outside the zoo. The Zoo Atlanta Trading Company sells zoo memorabilia and gifts.