Rhinos, Giraffes, and, well, Beer! – Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, IL

These are the only elephants at Brookfield. Also starring Nico and Brook, the recently purchased otter stuffy.


As most visitors to Chicago know, there are two zoos in the metro Chicago area. The first, Lincoln Park Zoo, is just north of downtown, reachable by public transportation, free to visit and has a smallish footprint for seeing it all in one day. Not sure how the big animals feel about the smallish footprint but let’s be honest–it’s the only way to have a zoo near downtown–there is no way to expand. I love that zoo but this time the kids were in favor of Brookfield.

Brookfield Zoo is run by the Chicago Zoological Society, about 15 miles west of Chicago downtown, and has a HUGE footprint. It is in fact the zoo in which I feel the most exhausted. Some of it has to do with a long-ago fiasco of a visit to see the Kratt Brothers show where my kids were treated badly as they tried to get closer to the stage. They were four. They loved the Kratts. People are mean–even, shockingly, midwestern people. No, I am not over it 7 years later.

My advice for the Brookfield is bike on in. Yes, it is right off a bike trail called Salt Creek, and then you can park your bike for free. Not for little kid biking though–you have to cross several large intersections. See that here. Car parking at the zoo  is $14 which added to admission of $22 per adult is pretty much an insult. I don’t even get the pay for parking in a huge rural lot in the middle of (sorry, Brookfield) nowhere.

Have I started off with enough negatives? Okay, so here we go on the positives. I love the little downhill path from the ticket booths through a tunnel past a bronze lion statue and up into the zoo. I don’t know why but maybe it is the part of me that believes you cross the line of imagination–thereafter you can enter the world of the giraffes, the dolphins, the insects. But, I have to say, unless your stamina is 1000 times mine (hmmm, that might actually be easy), it is really hard to see the whole zoo in one day. Unless you hit the Dippin’ Dots stand more than once. I am innocent.

Now the map of the 216 acres. See what I mean? Good luck to you. The usual advice applies which is to go early especially in summer, because them cats going to be napping. They were anyway when we were there in theoretically spring, in actuality it was 40 degrees.

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We headed right away to the cats. Leopards are truly incredible beasts, no? An amur leopard looked down at us from its perch on the (fake) rock. Inside the Big Cats building it was pretty much impossible to see the snow leopard but one of my kids fell in love with the tiny Black Footed Cat curled up sleeping. Bat-eared foxes are outrageously cute but could not be photographed well. And of course we got to enjoy the pungency of the indoor exhibits–even the caracol was curled up trying to hide its nose in its fur.

We took a break at the zoo cafeteria where it took upwards of 20 minutes to make us a hot dog. Less for a “reasonable” burger, which is about the highest classification my mom will give a concession food.  A concession for a concession, if you will and I most certainly will. Fortunately the delay gave me time to investigate the Revolution Brewery stand where the friendly midwestern server allowed me to try three different microbrews. I chose Fist City APA because of course, why wouldn’t you? Fist City, it turns out, was named for a Loretta Lynn tune which I have yet to look up. It will happen. I need more beer first.

Then we were off to the Swamp. It was very swampy. Even the caiman was swamped. I will only avoid one area in most zoos now: the gorillas. Their gazes are just too human. Well, okay I fail to enjoy the polar bears now too, just thinking about how their natural habitat is getting wrecked. My favorite at Brookfield has always been and will always be the giraffes. Beautiful elegant creatures–now on the list for extinction. Across the way in the Africa forest exhibit, Nico chose the okapi as his favorite.

Come here, you okapi!

Anyone who knows me knows of my love for elephants. Brookfield has no elephants: their second to last died in 2009 from kidney failure, and they returned their last one to the Six Flags park from which it had been borrowed. Elephants are social; they do not like to be alone. This is quite a nice article on the departure of Joyce, and how the Brookfield was elephant-less for the first time since 1934. If you ask me, Brookfield had not much luck with elephants–when building a bigger area for Ziggy, a bull elephant, the elephant did not see the moat separating him from people and fell in and died months later. Well, they pulled him out and then he died, I suppose. He had already nearly killed a keeper so he wasn’t the best spokesmodel for the zoo.

The humongous Pachyderm House is now inhabited by pygmy hippos and black rhinos. That’s Brookfield’s realm–black rhinos. One third of all US rhinos bred in captivity have come from the Brookfield Zoo. I think rhinos are cool and I want them to exist, but I have no enduring love for them like elephants. Except for one who was charging his round toy in his pen. That was funny. Probably not to him.

Pygmy hippo

So since you hardly want to hear all the details of the beasties, it is what it is: a zoo.  San Diego totally kicks its butt as does the Bronx zoo and a few others–Omaha, you are on my list of must-sees. But it in turn, Brookfield wipes out the Boston zoos which are depressing little places. I am guessing Brookfield is having a large funding problem as there seem to be a few abandoned projects and a few abandoned places. But in terms of good exercise while looking at sleeping animals, it’s a good show.

walking, walking, walking…

Brookfield Zoo is open 365 days a year from 10-5 or 10-6 on weekends. The price tag is $22 for adults and $16 for kids and seniors. Military are free.  Enjoy!


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