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Illinois Country Living

This Place is a Zoo, Literally!

Illinois zoos offer an affordable and fun learning experience for the whole family

by Catrina McCulley Wagner

Sea Lion

Carol Pagluica, a Zookeeper at Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo, works with Gremlin, a California Sea Lion that hails from Sea World.

The thunderous roar of a hungry lion rattles the land beneath your feet. In a slow, steady movement, you place an index finger over your pursed lips and bend in the direction of two wide-eyed children tiptoeing ever so carefully behind you. As you make your way to safety, a giraffe munching on a nearby tree greets you, stretching out its overly extensive, blue tongue to clutch the leaves. As you breathe in the musk and the dampness of your surroundings, you realize you’re living a dream. You’ve finally taken your family on an African Safari. You’re in your element, as you picture yourself graciously accepting the “Parent of the Year” award. In the distance you see a chimpanzee clapping for your achievement, but in the forefront, a small voice of reality yells, “I want to go see the sea lions perform!” Sea lions? In Africa?

Of course! You can have it all if you visit one of the eight Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoological parks in Illinois.

“With the price of gas today, families may find it a struggle to take a vacation very far from home. But visiting a neighboring zoo is a fun and affordable way to escape with your family,” says Yvonne Strode, Manager of the Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria. All it takes is a little imagination and you can have the family vacation of a lifetime without spending much money at all.

“There’s so much to see at a zoo. One minute you can be walking through an Amazon Rainforest, and the next, you can be in Australia watching the Wallaroos bask in the sun,” says Susan Ohley, Marketing Coordinator for the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington.

The concept of a zoo has transitioned through the years. Collections of wild animals existed in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. They were usually privately owned collections kept for the purpose of entertaining. But through the decades, and as the speed of global environmental degradation accelerates, zoos have been transformed. The modern-day zoos have become crucial in the effort to safeguard endangered species.

“Teaching about animal conservation is our main objective, but we also wanted to create a fun and unique learning experience for people,” says Strode. “We want people to come and have a wonderful encounter with our animals. We feel the way to get people to care about animal conservation is to allow them to interact with the animals and have some connection with them. We hope when people leave, they have a better understanding of how important it is to protect these wonderful species.”


Jay Ballard, Education Assistant at Peoria’s Glen Oak Zoo, allows 5-year-old Xander McCulley to touch a snake as part of the zoo’s hand’s-on learning program.

John Tobias, Zoo Superintendent at Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo agrees with Strode and adds that not only are zoos an inexpensive adventure for the whole family, but their whole purpose is for education, recreation, research and conservation. “Parents can feel good about the exposure their children will get knowing they will be learning while having fun.”

Strode adds, “The depth of a zoo’s research and conservation, not to mention the efforts made to ensure the public’s safety, are ongoing.” To a visitor, it may appear effortless. “That just means we are doing our job of providing a zoological experience that is both educational and entertaining, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes a visitor doesn’t know about,” Tobias says.

“It takes a lot of care to maintain a zoo. It’s like a little city within the city, except that the animals stay and the visitors go home,” Tobias says. He adds that the most challenging part of his job is making sure the upkeep of the animals is as good as it should be. “Our zookeepers here do an amazing job at taking care of their animals. But we also take care of our visitors, and we get more than 100,000 a year.”

Tobias says there are a lot of regulations and certain permits they need for different animals. “For instance, we have a pair of bald eagles that have laid an egg. We know the egg is not fertile, but if we wanted to keep the egg and use it as an education tool, we’d have to apply to get a permit to keep it here at the zoo. So there’s a lot more to the ins and outs of zoo life than meets the eye.”

Strode says, “Our biggest challenge, of course, is that we’re working with wild animals and they’ve evolved to not show us when they’re sick. So you have to be very careful to pick up on even the slightest hint that they are under the weather.” She says when animals are sick, they not only can’t tell you, but it’s their survival instinct to hide it from you. “In the wild, a sick animal is usually eaten, so they hide it. We have to pay very close attention to their habits to catch an illness.”

Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo is currently updating and expanding its facility. “We’ve started to do some things already, and we’re trying to obtain more land so we can go even further,” says Ohley.

Tobias adds, “We’ve just finished building a zoo hospital, complete with a viewing window so that visitors, if they happen to be here during the time we’re doing a procedure, can actually watch what’s going on.” Although Tobias says the veterinarian does have an option of closing the window if he or she feels the procedure is something that needs to be more private or needs extra concentration. “The window is gas filled. So when we need to close it, we simply flip a switch and the window becomes full of smoke. So it’s kind of like an exhibit within itself,” says Tobias.


Yvonne Strode, Manager of Peoria’s Glen Oak Zoo, overlooks the construction of the zoo’s new addition, Africa!, that will open in May of 2009.

At Peoria’s Glen Oak Zoo, they are in the middle of a huge expansion that will nearly triple its size. “In May of 2009, we will be introducing Africa! to our visitors, which will expand our park from seven acres to 21,” says Strode. “During an African Safari at the zoo, visitors will get the opportunity to visit a Zambezi River Village to explore artifacts of the hunting and farming tribes of eastern and central Africa. They’ll explore a Savanna Grassland/Treetop Village to view giraffes from treetop observation areas and watch rhinos and zebras roam the flatlands. And they’ll visit forestlands to observe species like mandrill baboons and other interesting animals native to Africa. It’s going to be a great experience. I don’t think people are going to believe it until they see it,” says Strode. “Kids will even get the opportunity to feed the giraffes.”

The Africa! exhibit will also include a Safari Lodge that will seat nearly 200 people. Strode says, “That site will be the concession area during the day, but then at night, we will rent it out for weddings and other meeting needs. The whole area will be lit, and at night it will be absolutely fantastic.”

But Strode says you don’t have to wait until May of 2009 to come and enjoy the Glen Oak Zoo. The construction for Africa! is scheduled to be finished in September, but there’s still plenty to see and do before it opens in the spring. “We are open all-year-round from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and we only close for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Strode.

During the summer months the Glen Oak Zoo offers various programs every half-hour throughout the day presented by either a zookeeper or one of the zoo’s education staff. “They bring animals out to visit with the children. The kids can really get face to face with a snake if they want,” Strode says.

They also have education programs and a summer camp. “It’s a week-long camp for kids. They can come do activities and learn about different animals and what they can do to help the environment.”

In the fall, they have a Halloween event. “We invite people to come visit the zoo at night. It’s a really different mood to see the animals at night,” Strode says. The zoo also hosts an Easter egg hunt in the spring and Critter Christmas in the winter. “During Critter Christmas, we give the animals presents and people love watching. Usually we wrap up boxes and put the animal’s favorite foods inside. Coconuts are a favorite. We don’t give them often because it’s not good for the animals on a regular basis, but once or twice a year as a special treat, they love it,” says Strode.

Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo is also open everyday except Thanksgiving and Christmas, from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. “We have a sea lion demonstration everyday at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. – but calling it a demonstration doesn’t do it justice. It’s a small-scale show, like they have at Sea World,” says Ohley. “And each day at 4 p.m., visitors can watch as the zookeepers feed the tiger, leopard, lemur, gibbon and sun bears.

“We also offer a summer camp, classes and a Junior Zookeeper program that takes place all-year-round,” Ohley says. And on those hot summer days, be sure to bring your swimwear and take advantage of the brand new playground/sprayground that just opened this year in the front of the zoo.

“In November, visitors can have their picture taken with our reindeer, and in December, we host Breakfast with Santa,” says Tobias.

By the end of this month, summer will slowly wind down, kids will be getting ready to hit the books and teachers will begin their lesson plans for the year to come. “Teachers looking to add a unique learning experience into their year can contact their local zoo to see about special school programs for the kids,” says Strode. Both Miller Park Zoo and Glen Oak Zoo provide special school groups tours. “Every Illinois school child gets in free to the Glen Oak Zoo,” says Strode. “It’s part of our mission to educate. Also with that we do offer some one-on-one classroom work. So if you want to come and have a class, it’s just a dollar more per person. With that you’ll get to talk to one of our staff educators, who will bring some of the animals out and talk about them in a private classroom setting. A lot of teachers like to do that.”

With so much to see and do, all within miles from home, its no wonder zoos are popular. So why not take your family on a trip around the world for very little money and explore an Illinois zoo. What are you waiting for? A wild adventure awaits you.

Make plans to visit one of Illinois’ AZA accredited zoological parks.

Glen Oak Zoo, Peoria, Ill.

Hours: Daily: 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.



Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Ill


Grounds: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Buildings and Farm: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Miller Park Zoo, Bloomington, Ill.

Hours: Daily 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.



Cosley Zoo, Wheaton, Ill.

Hours: Daily: 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Henson Robinson Zoo, Springfield, Ill.


April – October: Weekdays: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Weekends: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

November – March: Daily: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.



Niabi Zoo, Coal Valley, Ill.


Spring and summer: 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Fall and winter: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, Ill.


Weekdays: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Weekends: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.


Scovill Zoo, Decatur, Ill.


Summer: Daily: 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Spring and fall: Weekdays: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Weekends: 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.



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