By Matt Fouts
Seven years ago I was having lunch with Jack Hanna and knowing he had been to many, many zoos across the country, I asked him to recommend three zoos that were similar and might provide some inspiration for our fledgling wildlife park. He recommended Niabi Zoo, Columbus Zoo, and Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. We visited all three that summer and have visited at least three zoos every summer since.
We call it our zoo-cation.
When we started, it was just my wife, Lisa, and my son, Luke, who was two years old at the time. Now there is five of us with my daughters, Clare and Anna. They like to call us the Fouts 5.
This year’s zoo-cation started off with a visit to the Nashville Zoo. Rick Schwartz, their director, and Jim Fouts, our director, have been friends for more than 30 years, and we have worked together on many projects.
The last time I was at the Nashville Zoo was approximately eleven years ago. It has changed significantly. Their collection is not large. In fact, I believe our family-owned facility has a larger collection of animals. However, they build and design exhibits on a whole different level.
I have been to nearly 100 zoos now and many of the big zoos all kind of blend together. That is something we frequently hear from visitors at Tanganyika. They will say, “We are from big city X with a great zoo, but we didn’t want to visit another big zoo. We wanted something different, so we chose Tanganyika.”
Well, Nashville Zoo’s annual attendance is over 800,000, but in my humble opinion it isn’t the same as all the other major zoos. Their attention to detail is unparalleled, with the exception of possibly Disney Animal Kingdom.
The new entrance is quite possibly the best I have ever seen. It was laid out wonderfully and thoughtfully. Now, the nuances I am about to mention would probably go unnoticed to the average zoo-goer, but I definitely picked up on them. For instance, guests will frequently briskly walk up to the ticket window and ask for a bathroom. They had gorgeous bathrooms with a large family restroom and even private rooms for nursing moms available before you even entered. The finishes from the synthetic thatch to hand-crafted and etched doors were spectacular. The men’s restroom also had a python exhibit above the urinals… which was a first for me and a brilliant idea.
We eventually made it past the entrance and headed into the zoo. Immediately inside the zoo, they have two islands for white-cheeked gibbons and siamangs. Sound familiar? It should because they were the inspiration behind our islands. However, Nashville Zoo has much older trees and better topography to hide the buildings. That is a consistent theme throughout the zoo. You will barely see any animal buildings.
Next it was off to the amphitheater to watch a bird show. They were still working with several of the birds in the show and they didn’t perform flawlessly. That is fairly normal with animals, but overall the show wasn’t as polished as many of the shows I have seen.
The zoo is divided into three areas: Jungle Loop, Zoo Central, and the Savannah Loop. We started with the Jungle Loop, which featured many of the animals you would see at Tanganyika including lemurs, African crested porcupines and clouded leopards. Nashville Zoo was a major player in the founding of the Clouded Leopard Consortium and has had more than 28 babies born at their zoo. The portion of the loop with the clouded leopards was called the bamboo trail and it was one of my favorite parts. The bamboo as huge and provided an authentic feel.
Also along the trail were a couple of exhibits that might be familiar to TWP visitors. They just recently opened a kangaroo walk-through and a sulcata tortoise feeding exhibit. Many of the animals for the exhibit were supplied by Tanganyika. They allow petting in the kangaroo exhibit, but only if they are near the sidewalk. We had a similar rule when we first opened our exhibit. The tortoise exhibit was a little larger and cost $1 more than our feeding. They also had a small train that was 2 tokens ($2).
The Savannah Loop featured many familiar exhibits as well. They had giraffes (Masai instead of Reticulated like ours), red river hogs, and a lorikeet landing (also a $1 more than ours). They had a couple of smaller lorikeets in the exhibit that I had never seen before. My kids also enjoyed riding the endangered species carousel and a new zip line attraction.
One of the unique features for any zoo was a 200 year old farm house that was part of the original farm that sits on. The house has a tremendous amount of history and is a nice change of pace while you are there.
The highlight for the kids was the Jungle Gym. This massive play area has some life-size and larger than life-size animals to play in or around. Plus, a giant wood play structure. My kids could have spent hours there.
To cap off our visit, we went on a behind the scenes tour with Rick. They offer a backstage pass twice a day for nine people. The tour includes the giant anteater barn (we got to see a baby anteater), a tour of the commissary, and a visit with their okapi (click to see our Facebook Live video with the okapi). This was full of many firsts for me and we will definitely be working to add some of it to TWP’s experiences.
Rick also gave us a special behind the scenes tour of four new exhibits for monkeys, tigers, Andean bears, and African rhinos. They are all part of a $135 million capital campaign. The designs and features are unbelievable and I can’t wait to visit this zoo in a few years to see them.
If you are a zoo fan or just in the area of Nashville, make sure you put this zoo on your list. It is gorgeous and growing. It offers some interaction for the kids and is reasonably priced. It is one of my Top 10 zoos in the country!