I have been to a lot of zoos in my life. Growing up in Minnesota, trips to Como Zoo and later, the Minnesota Zoo (a/k/a the “New Zoo”) were pretty frequent. Here in Chicago, I have easy access to the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only free public zoos in the country. And once I started traveling, I sought out zoos in places I visited. The idea of zoos, though, has become increasingly controversial. Do they serve educational and conservation purposes or do they inflict unnecessary harm on animals? In my experience, the answer is “it depends” (I am a lawyer, after all).

I have been heartbroken at some of the conditions I have seen for animals across the world. The image of an enormous rhinoceros in a tiny room at the Berlin Zoo in the winter comes to mind, as does the picture of a dozen mountain goats crammed into a single pen at the Tallinn Zoo. I also recall feeling sad for the lonely animals at the Helsinki Zoo who, while enjoying large habitats to roam around, were often lacking companions.

Which brings me to my recent trip to the Binder Park Zoo near Battle Creek, Michigan. I spent a Saturday morning at the zoo with my friend Sally of Unbrave Girl, who lives in nearby Kalamazoo. I was initially struck by the zoo’s surroundings as we arrived – we pulled into a parking lot surrounded by woods. Whereas most zoos I have visited are within the city limits of major cities, Binder Park felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. We arrived around 10 a.m., which proved to be a very good time. The zoo was just starting to fill with visitors and it would get much more crowded by midday.

Almost immediately, we made our way to the main attraction – the zoo’s Wild Africa exhibit. It is really an understatement to call it an exhibit; Wild Africa was like a zoo within a zoo. Located about a half mile from the rest of the zoo, we took a tram to reach the entrance to Wild Africa. Walking to the tram, we passed under the flags of all of the African nations – even South Sudan was represented! As soon as we hopped on the tram, the experience began. The conductor of the tram made announcements as if we were actually on our way to Africa, even warning of watching out for, and turning in poachers, as we explored the park. When we exited the tram six minutes later, we were no longer in Michigan; we were in an African village.

As we passed a customs and information kiosk and a Dippin’ Dots stand (because of course they have those in Africa), we found ourselves looking out at a vast grassy plain below us with zebras grazing and a giraffe slowly coming into view. I may have actually shrieked, “zebras! And a giraffe!” The wide open space made me happy for the animals (this was seriously the largest habitat I have seen at any zoo) and gave the feeling that we were watching the zebras graze in the open plains of Africa, not just in a pasture in western Michigan.

We soon headed through the “park entrance” and followed a path with signs again designed to make visitors feel as if they were in an actual national park somewhere in Africa. Following a boardwalk, we came to a “ranger station” with another viewpoint overlooking where the zebras and giraffes were roaming. At this spot, though, park rangers sold pieces of lettuce that we could use to feed the giraffes. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, Sally and I fed lettuce to the outstretched tongues of one of the giraffes and then did our best to pose for selfies with the giraffe in the background – easier said than done as he kept moving! As we got ready to move on, some teens next to use were contemplating whether or not it was silly to try to take a selfie with the giraffe – we readily assured them it was not!

The giraffes were certainly the highlight of our visit to “Africa,” but we also got to see some families of monkeys and a giant tortoise that actually roared at us. The path through the park also included a ranger quiz, with questions on signs on the side of the path about what to do in certain wilderness situations. These were pretty funny as the answers were mostly common sense (“you hear leaves rustling and twigs snapping – do you go into the woods to investigate or do you keep moving?”). There was also a pull-up station and I impressed myself by managing two whole pull-ups! (wish I’d gotten that on camera!)

After we finished exploring “Africa,” we decided to walk the half mile back to the rest of the zoo instead of taking the tram. During this walk, a magnitude 4.2 earthquake shook western Michigan (with an epicenter just a couple miles from where we were), leading us to joke the rest of the day that we didn’t feel it because we were walking back from Africa when it happened. It was a nice walk through the woods and made me think about how much more potential Binder Park has to expand to feature an even wider variety of animals (a lion exhibit is already in the works). At the same time, given Michigan’s climate, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens during the winter months to all of the animals who typically call the hot climate of Africa home.

We spent another 30 minutes or so exploring the rest of the zoo after we “returned” from Africa but aside from the black bears (two of whom tried to put on a show reminiscent of the panda sex video that has been making the rounds on social media), it was a bit of a letdown. Still early in the season, a lot of animals were not yet out in their habitats. If I was to go again, I would save Africa for the end, but as it was, when we saw how much the crowds had grown in the three hours since we first arrived, we were glad we headed straight to Africa before it got too crowded.

Overall, Binder Park really impressed me. While we joked at the zoo’s attempt to replicate Africa, I appreciated the effort to educate visitors about the animals and about the dangers facing them in their natural habitats; namely, poachers. And I loved how much room many of the animals have to roam around, although I worry about what happens to them in the winter months. At just $13.50, I thought it was a good value and a great way to spend a beautiful sunny morning in Michigan.

And now I’m even more motivated to get back to Africa and do a real safari!

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