News Column

Chicago Tribune Steve Johnson column

July 30, 2014

By Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune

July 30--There are so many ways to enjoy Chicago'sLincoln Park Zoo that it might be best just to list them.

1. As a place to see exotic animals. Lincoln Park Zoo isn't America's biggest by any measure, but it packs an awful lot into its 49 acres on the city's North Side, nestled between expensive apartment buildings and Lake Michigan. There are gorillas, chimps, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, flamingos, kangaroos, lions, a tiger, a leopard, camels, seals and many, many more: 200-plus species and some 1,100 animals, not counting fish and insects. In short, save for elephants, most of the animal kingdom's greatest hits are on the grounds, awaiting visitor inspection.

2. As a budget option. The zoo, you may have heard, is free. Because people don't have much experience with this nowadays, we will be absolutely clear on what this means: At any of the six gates around the perimeter, you walk right in. No turnstiles. No wristbands. Not even some smiling personage trying to guilt-trip you into a membership.

Certainly, the zoo will accept your money at its snack bars and gift shops, and it'll ask you to make donations to support its no-admission-fee ethos. It would love to have you as a member, too, helping to pay the considerable bills. But as a matter of practice and principle, it'll let you in with pockets turned out and wallet left at home.

As a result, this doyenne of a ritzy neighborhood is one of the city's most democratic cultural institutions, visited by everyone from the struggling to the swells, to the tune of about 3.5 million people per year. (The budget takes a hit, though, in the official parking lot east of the zoo; that'll set you back $30 or so.)

3. As a garden. Beginning in 2007, perhaps inspired by its immediate neighbor to the northwest, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, the zoo began aggressively upgrading the landscaping of its grounds, giving the flora almost as much pride of place as the fauna.

Indeed, take away the animals and you've still got an excellent afternoon's walk amid twisting pathways, their boundaries planted with a compelling variety of grasses, flowers, shrubs and more. It all surrounds, very roughly speaking, the central Swan Pond and Waterfowl Lagoon, stocked with flamingos and trumpeter swans, as artfully groomed a water feature as you'll find.

And that's just in the zoo proper. Immediately south, alongside Lincoln Park's Farm in the Zoo adjunct, the garden walk gets even better. The zoo in 2010 constructed Nature Boardwalk, a near-perfect half-mile pathway around South Pond. Chest high in summer, restored prairie plants line the walk, and your view, heading south, is of Chicago's vibrant skyline. As you stroll, try to spy one of the prehistoric-looking black-crowned night herons nesting in the trees and meditate on the relative merits of the grown versus the built environment.

4. As a world-class zoological institution. A longtime leader in primate research at the home base, the zoo also supports cutting-edge conservation work with dogs and apes in Africa and a multitude of local conservation programs dealing with urban wildlife and the reintroduction of native species in Illinois. In the Regenstein Center for African Apes, visitors can see some of the gorillas learning complicated memory sequences on a touch screen, part of ongoing research into primate cognition.

Reminders of the zoo's scientific work pop up throughout the grounds. And even when it's not actively teaching, a zoo is, of course, teaching. "You came out of your mom's belly, and I came out of my mom's belly," a girl informed her friend recently, standing in front of an exhibit with a baby animal in it.

5. As a historical artifact. Lincoln Park Zoo traces its origins to 1868, when park commissioners received a pair of swans from their counterparts in New York'sCentral Park. A $10 bear cub came next. In the years that followed, fame came in the form of the orphaned lowland gorilla Bushman and mid-20th-century directors Marlin Perkins (of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" renown) and Lester Fisher.

You can still see traces of vintage zookeeping in the Kovler Lion House, where naturalistic add-ins do not fully disguise the building's heritage of animal pens along opposing walls. But most of the zoo's old, red-brick buildings, while retaining their period charm, have undergone a more sophisticated retrofitting or been built to match. Case in point: The Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, which looks antique from the front door but opens to reveal a pathway-style experience leading into a big open area for the small mammals.

6. As an early morning tourism stop. The indoor buildings don't open until 10 a.m., but the gates open at 7 a.m. Some of the animals are more active then, and the park itself is blissfully quiet, as the stroller brigade generally doesn't arrive for a couple of hours. Wander through the park to the south end and see one of the coolest animals, the Sichuan takin, a golden-fleeced sort of mountain goat that approaches water buffalo size, and the institution's best animal cohabitations (or at least the one most suggestive of a Disney cartoon pairing), the alpacas and Muscovy ducks.

7. As an excuse to spend some winter time outdoors. The hugely popular ZooLights, a high-wattage Brigadoon that appears every year in late November and December, festoons the zoo with more light bulbs than you'll find in a Home Depot. And at the zoo, they're all on, and most of them these days are of the more efficient LED variety.

8. As a work in progress. Most zoo exhibits have been renovated or almost wholly remade since 1990. Far from resting on its laurels, the zoo has one big building project well underway and another about to begin. On the site of the old, closed penguin house, a big, state-of-the-art home for Japanese macaques, popularly known as snow monkeys, is scheduled to open in the fall (along with a new kids railway). And in that same season, the row of bear habitats will close, and the animals will be moved elsewhere. Work will begin on a new home for penguins and polar bears, slated to open in 2016.

Don't forget: To stroll around the zoo's quieter north end, where the indoor Regenstein African Journey is surprisingly expansive for such a small zoo, and the critically endangered eastern black rhinos, including supercute 2013 arrival King, loll about. It's a short few steps out the Conservatory Gate, on the northwest end, and into Lincoln Park Conservatory, for a quick botanical interlude in your zoo day.

Don't miss: The ornate artwork atop the East Gate, a metallic tangle of vines and animals, guarded by a lion on one side, a kudu on the other. Also be sure to pause on the bridge overlooking Swan Pond, as pretty a spot as you'll find in Chicago.

Don't bother: With the central, often chaotic Park Place Cafe for food. A much nicer choice is the Patio at Cafe Brauer, with a better menu and outdoor seating overlooking the pond at the south end of the zoo. Even the Cafe at Wild Things, although limited in menu, lets you sit atop the main gift shop and overlook the zoo's central plaza as you face the lion and tiger exhibits.

Pro tips: Catch at least one of the regular demonstrations, such as the 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. seal training and feeding at Kovler Sea Lion Pool (sit further east for better views) or the 1:30 p.m. great ape training session in the Regenstein Center for African Apes (arrive and position yourself early because it can be difficult to see through the crowd that gathers). These aren't dolphin shows, but they do show how positive reinforcement teaches animals to facilitate their own care. Street parking in the congested neighborhood is sparse, and the lot east of the zoo costly, $30 for four to five hours. Take a cab or a bus (CTA routes No. 151, 156, 22 or 36), ride a bike or become a member and park for just $9.

Lincoln Park Zoo

When: Summer weekday hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (gates open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.); weekends are 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (gates open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.); through Sept. 1

Where: 2200 N. Cannon Drive

Tickets: Free; contact 312-742-2000 or lpzoo.org

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

___

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters