Zoo Miami’s diverse collection of animals found on five continents

Posted November 9, 2015


A crowd of people shuffles through thin railings —­ grandparents clutching eager kids clad in caps and backpacks, couples soaking in Miami’s crisp afternoon air, parents struggling to control hyped-up children fighting over whether the lions or monkeys should be seen first.

All together, they represent an assorted group of visitors waiting to enter Zoo Miami, the oldest and largest menagerie in Florida.

The 750-acre park houses animals from almost all coordinates of the world, with mammals and reptiles from as far as Asia and Australia making a new home in Miami. South Florida’s tropical climate sustains them, allowing Zoo Miami to be the only tropical zoo in the U.S.

Walking inside, you’ll find makeshift cobwebs cloaking bushes; embracing the Halloween spirit. Inflatable ghosts and goblins hang from trees, their faces stretched out in mock horror and their arms close enough to touch you, but far enough to not scare little kids.

The zoo is divided into five continents: Asia, Africa, Australia and North and South America. According to Jack, a zookeeper at the park who did not want to be identified further, the most popular regions of the park are Asia and Africa, where people flock to feed the giraffes in Africa and take pictures of the lions in Asia. It’s an around the world adventure that requires no more than a 15-minute walk to get from one continent to another.

“People are always surprised by how much they can interact with the animals … I love doing this because I get to see their shocked expressions once a giraffe knocks down the whole basket of lettuce they were holding,” Jack said.

Africa features animals such as gorillas and chimpanzees, which freely hang off of whatever tree or railing they can climb. Dromedary camels recall the northern areas of Africa, and Madagascar giant day geckos challenge our own native reptiles in stature and size, a forbidding sight for anyone who hasn’t been already been desensitized by Miami’s lizards.

In Asia, Malaysian sun bears get their name from the burnt-orange crescents on their chests. Next to their exhibit, you’ll find a small poster for the sunrise pose based off of the bear, and similar yoga posters can be spotted throughout the park next to other animals. These include the tree pose (recalling the Pine Rockland), arm circles (mimicking the Andean Condors) and the warrior pose (coming from the jaguar, of course).

Australia brings species such as the matschie’s tree kangaroo, the singing dog and the double-wattled cassowary. North America, not surprisingly, features animals such as the American alligator and the Florida king snake, while South America adds more to the variety with their squirrel monkeys, giant river otters, and golden lion tamarinds.

People can rent Safari Cycles that seat up to three adults and two small children (or more, if you know how to squeeze in) and cruise around the zoo in the bright, multicolored wheels. On a lake in the center of the park, swan and duck pedal boats take being in the Amazonian part of the park to a whole new level. The white and yellow of the boats contrast with the blue of the water to add a colorful touch to the experience, like a Monet painting at his finest.

“My favorite part of the day so far has been riding the bike around with my family,” said Rachel Castano, a junior at nearby Coral Reef High School. “It’s really fun to try to get in sync with all of them and laugh as my brother gets lazy in the back and sneakily tries not to peddle – don’t worry, I still caught him every time.”

Another signature favorite of the zoo is Wings Down Under: A Parrot Feeding Adventure, where you can pay $3.50 for a cup of multicolored seeds and feed the Australian parrots in the free-flight house. There are no boundaries once inside: you’ll walk into a scene straight out of “Free Birds” and try to hold on to your cup while parrots, parakeets and rosellas cling to your arms to gnaw at their lunches.

They tend to be very aggressive too, and you’ll see battles happening between any bird who has marked their territory on your hand with any other bird attempting to share the space. With more than 300 parrots actively searching the territory for seeds, there will be conflict. For some reason, they’re drawn to flip-flops and the sodium in your sweat –making feet, bare shoulders and necks a place of high pecking frequency.

“I don’t mind too much: it’s like a free massage!” said Hannah Berrin, a frequent visitor of the exhibit.

Of course, parrots aren’t the only animals allowed to be fed – everyone has seen some form of giraffe selfie from the Samburu Giraffe Feeding Station. It’s the most crowded place of the park, with lines sometimes extending outside the wooden platform that leads to the giraffes.

Visitors can pay $3.50 for a snack or $11 for a basket of lettuce to feed the eager giraffes. Word to the wise: don’t turn around and try to take a picture with them. They will attack you from behind with their 18-inch tongues.

November and December tend to be the busiest times of the year for zoo, according to Communications Director Ron Magill. This happens because the weather is more suitable for the outdoor experience, drawing a larger influx of tourists.

“It’s a great family place and first date place for couples ­– those are the types of people we tend to see most here,” he said.

This year, the zoo had a record-breaking number of 972,000 visitors, compared to last year’s 940,000. 

“We come every year during our vacation and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger,” said Joel Stevens, a New York native. “We love animals and it’s just so nice and serene to watch them and enjoy the water, because back home it’s 39 degrees right now.”

If You Go

  • Address: 12400 SW 152nd St., Miami, Fla. 33177
  • Phone number: 305-251-040
  • Hours: Everyday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  • Tickets: Adults 13+: $19.95, children (3-12): $15.95, children 2 and under: Free
  • Parking: Free and $8 for valet
  • Tram tours are available through Asia and Africa and are $5.95 per person. Departure times are 3:30 a.m., 12 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. from the main entrance
  • Safari Cycles: Small (accommodates up to three adults and two small children) is $26 for two-hour rentals and $13 for every additional hour. Large (accommodates up to six adults and two small children) is $36 for two-hour rentals and $18 for each additional hour
  • Aquatic Sport LLC hours: 2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. weekends and holidays
  • Aquatic Sport LLC tickets: $15 for a three-person boat, $20 for a four-person boat and $25 for a five-person boat. Minimum age to rent is 21