Information About the Detroit Zoo

A Natural-Habitat Zoo

••• Lonely Planet/Getty Images

The Detroit Zoo has 270 species and over 6,800 animals. It is located on over 125 acres in Oakland County at the corner of I-696 and Woodward Avenue. In addition to the animals, there are over 700 varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants.

Claims to Fame

  • The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in the country to utilize features of a simulated natural environment as barriers rather than bars.
  • Arctic Ring of Life, a four-acre exhibit that showcases polar bears, seals and sea lions in an enormous, simulated, arctic-tundra habitat. An underwater, 70-foot-long, clear tunnel allows visitors to get up close and personal to the polar bears and seals.
  • Australian Outback Adventure, a two-acre, walk-through outback with red kangaroos and wallabies. The only thing separating the visitors from the animals is a knee-high cable on both sides of the walkway.
  • Penguinarium, the first exhibit in the country designed specifically for penguins. It has a three-sided habitat surrounded by a continuous pool. The exhibit was revised in 1986 and now incorporates three different habitats for different species of penguin.
  • In 2005, the zoo made news when it gave up its elephants on ethical grounds because of the harshness of Michigan winters.

History

The Detroit Zoo, at least as we know it, opened in 1928, but it wasn’t the first in Detroit. In 1883, the Detroit Zoological Garden operated on Michigan Avenue after buying the circus animals from a defunct circus. It only lasted a year.

The next attempt began in 1911 when prominent Detroiters started to buy up land for making their vision of a world-class zoo a reality.

After several lucrative real-estate transactions involving potential sites, the group eventually bought land between 10 and 11 Mile Roads in Oakland County. The Detroit Zoological Commission was created in 1924, and the City of Detroit took on the financial responsibility for the zoo when no other public entity, county or state, would.

The commission hired Heinrich Hagenbeck from the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany, as an advisor. The Detroit Zoo was the first in the United States to incorporate a natural-habitat design. In other words, there were no bars. Instead, the simulated habitats were engineered to provide a barrier between the animals and the public. In most instances, the habitat design utilizes a moat. This concept exists through today, with some exceptions. For example, peacocks roam at will and the kangaroo exhibit is designed so that there is little more than a walkway through the habitat.

Originally, zoo admission was free -- a fact the original Zoo Director John Millen didn’t want to change. When a one-mill tax was suspended in 1932, however, the zoo had no choice but to start charging admission.

In the zoo’s first decade, visitors could ride the resident elephant, large Aldabra tortoises and/or the miniature railroad donated by The Detroit News. They could also stop to admire the Horace Rackham Memorial Fountain created by Corrado Parducci, which features sculpted bears and forms the zoo’s centerpiece.

Don’t Miss

  • National Amphibian Conservation Center
  • Chimps of Harambee exhibit, a four-acre habitat
  • Reptile House
  • Free-flying aviary
  • Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden
  • Prairie Dog exhibit, a great photo opportunity with kids
  • Giraffe House and Encounter. Visitors can hand feed the giraffes at designated times.
  • Wild Adventure Ride, a virtual-reality, motion-simulator experience.
  • Tauber Family Railroad. The railroad was originally gifted by The Detroit News in 1931. In the 1950s, Chrysler Corporation donated new locomotives. The entire railroad was renovated in the early 1980s.

Events and Activities

  • September: Run Wild (5K and 10K races on the streets surrounding the zoo) and Fun Walk (inside the zoo)
  • October: Zoo Boo
  • November and December: Zoo Lights
  • Anytime: Geocaching

General Information

Admission is $11 an adult and $7 a child. Family memberships are $68 and include free parking and discounts on zoo merchandise and special events.

Parking is $5 and paid by purchasing a ticket at the admission booth. The Wild Adventure Ride costs an addition $4 and a ride on the railroad $2. The zoo also offers event rentals and catering, as well as birthday parties.

Dining Options

Dining options include the Arctic Food Court, a circular-shaped cafeteria in the zoo’s center. It includes grill items and an ice cream station. The cafeteria greatly expanded its menu several years ago. Watch out for the peacocks if you dine at an outside table. They hang around in hopes of snagging the occasional dropped French fry.

Other options include the Safari Café by the train station at the back of the zoo, Pizzafari and the Ice Cream Station Zebra for a snack. Note: the zoo does not allow caps for its soda cups. Apparently, it is some kind of hazard for the animals.