The Phoenix Zoo

On a sunny morning in December, my friend Marjorie and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather, so we walked from the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn, where we were staying, through Papago Park, to the Phoenix Zoo. Upon arriving, we noticed that the parking lot was empty. When we purchased our tickets we found that to our delight, besides a couple of busses filled with local children on field trips, we had the zoo to ourselves. Consequently, Marjorie and I were able to spend a quiet morning outside enjoying the desert landscape and the wildlife with no crowds.

The path around the Phoenix Zoo began at a lagoon. We admired the birds and plants below as we crossed the bridge. The Phoenix Zoo began in 1961 when Robert E. Maytag, grandson of the founder of the Maytag appliance company, organized a community of friends around the crazy idea of building a zoo. “It was a period of delightful, enthusiastic chaos,” recalled Nancy Maytag Love. “We didn’t have any idea what we were getting into, but our enthusiasm and the certainty that we were building a great zoo carried us through every challenge we faced.” Robert Maytag’s unexpected death nearly finished off their idea, but Nancy Maytag stepped forward, declaring the zoo would be completed. After rallying the community, Nancy Maytag cut the ribbon, officially opening the zoo on November 21, 1962, and to this day, the Phoenix Zoo remains the largest privately owned, non-profit zoo in the United States and a bridge to saving endangered species. 

The Phoenix Zoo has four major themed areas, or "trails", representing different areas of the world: the Arizona Trail, the Africa Trail, the Tropics Trail, and the Children's Trail. I was most impressed by the Arizona Trail because they incorporated views of the gorgeous red sandstone cliffs of Papago Park into the outdoor exhibits. It was fascinating to view animals such as coyotes in their natural environment and I'm sure it's more interesting and hospitable for the animals too.

Similar to the Arizona Trail, the African Trail was also primarily outside. Giraffes and other animals were scattered throughout the vast exhibit. For $4 for members and $5 for the general public, zoo patrons can even feed the giraffes from a special platform. Elsewhere in the Phoenix Zoo, Marjorie and I were impressed by the size of the rhinoceros. Marjorie experienced an actual safari during her semester abroad, but she didn't have a chance to see a rhino. Several elephants are also at the Phoenix Zoo. Their area is close to the exit.

Marjorie’s favorite experience at the zoo was our encounter with the baboons. The monkeys were extremely close to the glass. They made eye-contact with both of us before turning around and sauntering to the back towards the trees, giving us a chance to gawk at their colorful behinds. Though most people think of the kindly old Rafiki from Disney’s Lion King when a baboon is referenced, they are actually incredibly strong and very intense and intimidating in person.

On our way to the rest of the monkey exhibits, I chuckled at the opportunity to pay for a camel ride. The rides cost $5 for members, $6 for the general public, and $5 for a chance to take a souvenir photo. The camels were extremely tall, and it was fun watching the eyes of the children widen when the camel stood with them on their back. After studying abroad in Morocco 2 years ago, I have had my fill of camel rides. Still, watching them stroll around the yard at the Phoenix Zoo brought back many positive memories of my incredible experience in the Moroccan desert.

Marjorie posed next to a statue of an Oryx, a type of antelope from the Middle East that was almost extinct by the 1960s. The Phoenix Zoo became a bridge that bred the Oryx in captivity and helped save the species. To date, there have been almost 250 Oryx born at the zoo. Because of conservation efforts by the Phoenix Zoo and others, the Oryx is no longer considered endangered.

We saw many other beautiful exhibits. Just seeing all the interesting plants and colorful animals was worth the price of admission, but if you want to do more consider becoming a zoo member. The Phoenix Zoo breeding program helps to keep endangered species genetically diversified. If that isn’t enough, there are additional membership benefits like free entrance to many other zoos across the nation (including the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and the Oregon Zoo in Portland - both zoos that I love). At the Phoenix Zoo, I didn’t have to purchase a ticket because I am already a zoo member in Seattle, and I was able to get Marjorie a ticket at a discounted price.

After we had seen every exhibit, we left the zoo on a winding desert trail through Papago Park. We walked past the Desert Botanical Gardens and a fascinating sandstone formation called Hole-in-the-Rock. In 40 minutes, we were back at the Magnuson Hotel Papago Inn where we ended our day with a cocktail in their lounge. It was a fun and exciting day at the Phoenix Zoo! 

For more information visit the Phoenix Zoo website.

Story and Photos by Becca Wirta

Zoo history courtesy