A Visit to Zoo Atlanta

In 1984, Zoo Atlanta was rated as one of the worst zoos in the nation. Then zoo leadership and the Atlanta community rallied to turn things around.  Is it worth visiting Zoo Atlanta today?

How the Atlanta Zoo Was Established

Founded in the late 1880s when a traveling circus broke down and went bankrupt in Atlanta, Atlanta Zoo opened in Grant Park with a jaguar, hyena, black bear, camels, and other creatures.  The zoo expanded significantly in 1935 when Asa G. Candler, Jr., founder of Coca-Cola and former Atlanta mayor, donated his own collection of exotic animals to the zoo.

Zoo Atlanta - Bongo
The bongo is the largest of the African forest antelopes

In 1984, in conjunction with the Humane Society, Parade Magazine listed the Atlanta Zoo as one of the top ten worst zoos in the nation based upon animal health and welfare, including the death of an elephant. There was understandable outrage over animals kept in slab concrete cages rather than naturalistic enclosures.  Across the nation, hearts broke for animals kept perpetually indoors and alone, most notably Willie B, the gorilla who was kept in a concrete-floored cage with only a tire swing and black-and-white television for 30 years. The zoo lost its accreditation, and mayor Andrew Young organized a team to immediately address the zoo’s biggest issues.

Under the leadership of Dr. Terry Maple, an experienced primate behaviorist who was made the new zoo director, and the support of the Atlanta community, the Atlanta zoo experienced a tremendous turnaround.  By the time Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, the Atlanta Zoo had evolved from one of the worst in the nation to world class.

Pro Tip:  If you have a zoo membership, like the Kansas City Zoo’s Friends of the Zoo program, be sure to ask about any discounts at the ticket office.  We received 50% off our tickets through this program.

Zoo Atlanta - Giraffe
Giraffe in the African Plains exhibit at Zoo Atlanta

What We Loved

Giant Pandas

There are only four places to see giant pandas in the United States, and Zoo Atlanta is one of them. Zoo Atlanta has the additional honor of being the birthplace of female panda twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan, the first twin pandas to be born in the US since 1987. Unfortunately, the panda twins said goodbye to Zoo Atlanta in November 2016 to return to China per the rules of the “panda diplomacy” program, but you can still experience the other giant pandas at the Atlanta Zoo via indoor and outdoor enclosures.

Zoo Atlanta - Giant Panda
One of the giant pandas on display at Zoo Atlanta

Related Post:  Seeing Giant Pandas in the US

Lots of Glass-Free, Naturalistic Enclosures

Long gone are the days of cement floors and cold metal bars.  Thank goodness!  Plus also, the ample glass-free viewing areas allow for great photos.

Baby gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo
A baby gorilla in a large, natural enclosure at Zoo Atlanta


An African lion at the zoo in Atlanta
No more concrete slab cages with bars for the king of the jungle!


Tiger at Zoo Atlanta
Getting up close and personal with a gorgeous tiger at the Atlanta Zoo

Scaly, Slimy Spectacular

Featuring more than 70 species of amphibians and reptiles, the newly opened, 14,000 square foot Scaly, Slimy Spectacular is quite, well, spectacular!  It replaces the World of Reptiles exhibit, the oldest exhibit at the zoo.

Zoo Atlanta - Iguana
I could have watched this iguana capture and munch on bugs for a long time.


Very intense snake at Zoo Atlanta
A very intense snake in the Scaly, Slimy Spectacular

A Bit Disappointing

The Train in the Kid Zone

While the train was adorable, the ride was the same price as the train at the Kansas City Zoo, but a much shorter experience.

The Admission Fee

Because we are Friends of the Kansas City Zoo, we received a hefty discount at the ticket counter. Without that reciprocal discount, full price tickets to the zoo are a bit expensive. Discounted tickets are offered online if purchased in advance of your visit, and be sure to ask for reciprocal zoo membership discounts.


The Verdict About Visiting Zoo Atlanta

Overall, we really enjoyed our visit!  Zoo Atlanta is on the smaller side but nicely done, especially the giant panda exhibit. I actually preferred the panda experience at Zoo Atlanta to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.

What about you?  Have you visited Zoo Atlanta?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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