Knoxville Zoological Gardens photo
Edie, one of the African elephants at Knoxville Zoo, appreciates the colorful blooms of warm weather.
There is little in this world more satisfying than seeing a child’s face light up with sheer awe and delight at the sight of an exotic animal he or she never seen before. At the Knoxville Zoo, one sees that face over and over again—on children and adults alike.
Kali, the zoo’s 300-pound Bengal tiger with rippling muscle covered in white fur with black stripes and very sharp, very large fangs, strides around with extraordinary grace. Tonka, a seven-ton African bull elephant with huge ivory tusks, happily takes a mud bath. George, a two-year-old black-furred ball of energy that is remarkably human-like and impossibly cute. His ears stick out wide, and his big brown eyes light up as he runs, jumps and swings on whatever’s at hand.
“Folks love to come see George and love to watch him grow up,” said Lisa New, director of animal collections for the Knoxville Zoo. “A lot of people ask about him by name. He’s the first chimp we’ve had born here in 20 years, and he’s kind of the zoo’s darling right now.”
The Knoxville Zoo, or Knoxville Zoological Gardens, is home to more than 900 animals. Situated on 53 wooded acres just east of downtown Knoxville near the city’s historic Chillhowee Park, the Knoxville Zoo has many natural habitats that serve as outdoor homes for the animals—Grasslands Africa!, African Elephant Preserve, Gorilla Valley, Chimp Ridge, Black Bear Falls, Red Panda Village and Meerkat Lookout, among others.
“Summer is when it’s all on,” said New. “We have special summer programs. The bird show is running, our zoo camps are running, and for our animals it’s prime temperature for the majority of them, so they’re all out and active. It’s all happening in the summer.”
New, a Knoxville native, has been with her hometown zoo for 20 years, starting out in research before moving into more hands-on activities as an animal keeper and eventually into her current position, which she’s held for a decade.
She notes that two-thirds of the zoo has been rebuilt in the time she’s been there. In fact, more than $26 million has been spent on improving the exhibits and infrastructure since 1999.
One of the zoo’s unofficial tag lines this summer is “In Your Face,” used in a far friendlier way than its usual connotation, to describe these opportunities to meet animals in a more intimate setting.
One such in-your-face experience is Bloomin’ Butterfly Gardens. This interactive walk-through butterfly exhibit features hundreds of monarch butterflies feeding and fluttering about. The zoo’s Animal Encounter Village, which opened just a few months ago, is another. It offers an opportunity for visitors to meet certain animals close at hand in the center of the zoo.
The zoo also offers its Close Encounters program for an additional $20 per-person fee. This new program allows folks to go behind the scenes and interact in a safe environment with elephants, penguins, giraffes and the giant Aldabran tortoises, as well as the entire turtle and tortoise collection. Reservations are required for Close Encounters and can be made online at the zoo Web site.
Thirty percent of the Close Encounter money goes to organizations such as the International Elephant Foundation and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds that are devoted to supporting the program’s various species in the wild.
Saving Endangered Species
Another important way the Knoxville Zoo is committed to conservation efforts is through its involvement in breeding specific endangered species. The Knoxville Zoo works closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a cooperative conservation and population management program coordinated among numerous exotic animal agencies and institutions. Taxon Advisory Groups serve as managers for particular taxa, or animal classifications, and designate which animals need survival plans, when animal breeding should occur, and where. The Knoxville Zoo breeds only upon a recommendation by these advisory groups to ensure controlled, favorable breeding conditions.
“The advisory groups are made up of experts in genetics and demographics for a given animal and they are managing them in zoos with 100- and 200-year goals to keep their genetic diversity optimal,” said New. “So we breed when we’re asked to breed, we hold when we’re asked to hold, and we inform them about what Knoxville Zoo needs.”
The Knoxville Zoo manages 27 species involved in survival programs including mammals like the red panda, red wolf, chimpanzee, Western Lowland gorilla, Stuhlmann’s blue monkey, African elephant, African lion, and Indochinese tiger. The African penguin, Eurasian black vulture and Toco toucan are among the zoo’s birds included in a survival plan, and the Tennessee Bog Turtle, Chinese alligator, radiated tortoise and Virgin Island boa are among the reptiles so designated.
The Knoxville Zoo, like other zoos across the nation, regularly reports a variety of data, including the animals’ health, when they reach sexual maturity, and births. The zoo may also make requests to take in specific animals for breeding purposes as needed, either on a temporary loan basis or permanently.
Being involved in the Species Survivor Plan also assures New that animals bred at Knoxville Zoo and sent off to another zoo will be going to a good home.
“We’re very careful about where our animals go,” notes New. “We make sure they only go to other accredited facilities.”
The zoo has been particularly successful breeding a number of animals including red pandas, white rhinos, and several types of snakes and tortoises. Perhaps most impressive has been the zoo’s success in breeding red pandas, an endangered species. More red panda cubs (93) have been born there than anywhere else in the Western half of the world, second in the world only to a zoo in the Netherlands. That fact has recently been recognized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in granting the Knoxville Zoo the coveted Bean Award, given to an institution for “excellence in the husbandry of a particular species.” The zoo currently has six adult pandas, four females and two males, but New expects new cubs sometime this summer.
The white rhinoceros, sometimes called the square-lipped rhinoceros, is another endangered species with which the zoo has had success. These three-ton behemoths reminiscent of prehistoric dinosaurs have been butchered in their natural habitats of Southern Africa for the supposed medicinal properties of their two horns. Knoxville Zoo, which is third in the nation as a breeding site for white rhinos, has been the birthplace for 28 rhino calves since the 1970s.
For the first time since the early 1990s, Knoxville Zoo brought in a new rhino late last year upon the recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Maggie is a 14-year-old hump-necked beauty sure to catch the eye of the zoo’s lone male, Mondo.
“We are slowly introducing Maggie to Mondo,” says Amy Flew, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “There’s a lot of aggression in rhino courtship. A lot of what Mondo is doing is just checking her out to see if she’s ready and she’s not.”
Farmlife and wildlife
Education plays an important role at the Knoxville Zoo.
“We hope that people who come here have a really good time and don’t really think about it as education but part of what we do is teach visitors something about wildlife,” said New. “We hope they feel some sort of personal connection to some of our animals, whether it’s a ferret they meet through an education member or one of our donkeys walking through the park, or with the chimps at Chimp Ridge. We’d like them to make that connection and be inspired to go on and learn about wildlife and care about wildlife.”
The zoo’s educational elements are delivered with a light touch and mostly come as a natural byproduct of simply observing the animals and enjoying the zoo’s many features. At Wee Play Zoo, an indoor facility offers young children the opportunity to dress up and play veterinarian, animal researcher, and animal keeper. The animal keeper role even involves scooping Styrofoam animal poop and is one of the kid’s favorite activities.
The Kid’s Cove is devoted to domestic animals. The zoo recreates a 19th century east Tennessee farm featuring heirloom breeds and native wildlife. Here you’ll find cows, goats and sheep which children can pet and brush. The Barn Loft has owls, snakes, and mice. The Night Club simulates darkness so that its nocturnal residents like raccoons, skunks and bats are active. There’s also a beaver pond and songbird aviary.
Add to all these real animals the artificial ones on the Fuzzy-Go-Round wild animal carousel and the water play area, giant sand box and climbing structures and slides and the Kid’s Cove becomes a destination spot in its own right.
The Knoxville Zoo is about fun, about savoring time with some amazing animals, and re-discovering that childlike wonder that comes when you’re face to face with some of the rarest creatures on earth.
Knoxville Zoo is located a few miles east of downtown Knoxville, just off I-40 at Exit 392. During the summer, the zoo is open weekdays 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Christmas day is the only day of the year the zoo is closed. Visit www.knoxville-zoo.org or call 865.637.5331.
Knoxville Zoo’s veteran vets
Knoxville Zoo gets top-notch veterinary care for its animals from the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine and in exchange provides financial support to the school’s avian and exotics residency program in an unusual arrangement that works well for both organizations.
Both bodies jointly operate a clinic at the zoo, and two of the college’s board-certified veterinarians, both exotic animal specialists, alternate monthly to provide onsite care to Knoxville Zoo animals every week day. The veterinary doctors are also on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“On any given day, it may be a check on a snake that has skin lesions, a frog that is not doing well, a lion or a tiger with a problem,” says Dr. Juergen Schumacher, doctor of veterinary medicine, professor and director of avian and zoological medicine at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “Just yesterday, we were diagnosing the cause of a zebra being lame. We take care of all the animals at the zoo.”
Schumacher is one of the two University of Tennessee veterinarians who tend to the Knoxville Zoo menagerie, the other being Dr. Edward Ramsay, also a professor at the college. Both are board-certified physicians. Each has been involved in wildlife medicine and exotic animal medicine for more than a dozen years.
Many procedures these skilled vets need to do for Knoxville Zoo animals can be done at the onsite clinic. The facility is equipped to handle topical anesthesia, epidurals, ultra-sounds, minor first aid, and the administration of various diagnostic tests and medicines. There are three full-time medical technicians working at the clinic, which is connected to the computer network at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
If more serious medical attention is necessary, Knoxville Zoo animals can be transported to the larger university clinic at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where the most sophisticated care is available, including advanced imaging technologies for diagnostic purposes, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, radiation therapy, and laser surgery. The program can also offer specialists such as cardiologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, and dermatologists. The University of Tennessee has one of only 28 veterinary colleges in the nation and has a solid reputation nationally and internationally. Its avian and exotic animals program is one of the largest of its kind in the country.
The Avian and Zoological Medicine Service provides care not only for the zoo but also for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Appalachian Bear Center, The Eagle Foundation, Tiger Haven, and Iams Nature Center—all in the Great Smoky Mountains region.
Building animal landscapes
People come to the zoo primarily to see exotic animals, of course. But the zoo experience is greatly enhanced by the environment carefully created for their public display, an environment designed to look like the animals’ various natural habitats. It is an environment partially natural, partially artificial. The two parts blend together exceptionally well at the Knoxville Zoo thanks to a crew of creative craftspeople who build the artificial components of most of the zoo’s different exhibit environments in a small workshop at the zoo.
At most zoos in the nation, the animal exhibits are created by a design firm specializing in producing zoo exhibit spaces. The Knoxville Zoo is one of the handful that has its own full-service crew. Black Bear Falls, one of the crew’s most elaborate creations, was noted in America’s Best Zoos, a guidebook by Allen Nyhuis and Jon Wassner, as one of the best black bear exhibits in the country.
Shane Chester, the exhibit design manager at the zoo, oversees the department’s seven-person crew. The Knoxville native has worked with the zoo for nearly 20 years, starting at the bottom and working his way up to his current position, which he’s held for a decade. Over the years, he’s helped design and build every kind of exhibit feature the zoo has required, from the most common like rocks and trees, to imitation chimp nests and vines, and rocky waterfall outcroppings, tunnels, caves and streambeds for the black bear exhibit. Such zoo exhibit components need to be extremely weather resistant and, for the safety of the animals, immobile and sturdy. That generally means metal and concrete, not wood and stone.
“We do a little bit of everything in our exhibit department,” says Chester. “We go from ground-up to finish. If we’re building a fake rock, for instance, we do it from the footers, to the rebar, to the concrete, to the paint. A lot of zoos have an exhibit department that might do fake vines or paint murals or things like that but we do everything full-scale. There are probably less than 10 zoos in the nation that have in-house departments like this but only three or four that do it at the scale we do.”
The exhibit design team also erects all the fencing, installs all the netting, and handles many other exhibit-enhancement related tasks at Knoxville Zoo.
The team’s most recently completed major exhibit is Red Panda Village, featuring two outdoor viewing areas, including a walk-through aviary-style area that offers unobstructed views. The next big project on the agenda is Big Cat Country, a complete reconfiguration of the zoo’s spaces for the lions and tigers and the creation of a brand new natural landscape for them. The work on this has just begun.
Knoxville Zoo’s exhibit design team makes visitors feel like they’re viewing a natural mountainous bear lair or an African savannah, among other habitats, but they do so while saving the zoo a bundle of money. The team creates its exhibits for less than half the cost an outside firm would charge.