Should You Visit Adelaide Zoo?

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Are you torn about whether or not you should visit Adelaide Zoo?

Zoos can be controversial. Historically they were cramped, crowded places that kept animals in enclosures far too small for them.

Today, our expectations have changed a lot and we no longer want to see animals in small cages. Many zoos around the world have changed to reflect those expectations – but there are also still many zoos that have not.

So it’s a fair question – should you visit Adelaide Zoo? I hope this information will help you make that decision.

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For context, I’m an average, middle-of-the-road animal lover. I am wary of zoos that may have small or dirty enclosures and do my due diligence when it comes to wildlife experiences.

I am by no means an activist, but if I learn about an harmful animal issue, I prefer to avoid it if I can.

I don’t believe in boycotting zoos and animal experiences altogether though, as there is that huge dilemma of without visitors money, who pays for the conservation efforts that often go hand in hand with the captive animals?

There have been terrible examples over the last two years in areas that relied on tourism before Covid.

I try to ensure my dollars go to the right types of places, but looking back, I know I have made some poor decisions. I aim to do better in the future and to help you do the same.

The photos included here are to show you the enclosures and surrounds than the animals themselves, so you can make your own decision about visiting Adelaide Zoo.

History of Adelaide Zoo

The historic rotunda, often used for weddings and other events

First opened in 1883, Adelaide Zoo is the second oldest in Australia (after Melbourne Zoo). It sits on the banks of the River Torrens on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people.

It’s just outside the city centre on an 8-hectare block, perfectly located for visitors who are staying in the city. In the past, the zoo was home to many large and exotic animals, including elephants, polar bears, rhinos and more.

This changed in the 1980s & 90s with the creation of Monarto Zoo outside of the city, near Murray Bridge. Originally Monarto was simply a breeding and retirement facility, taking ten years to open to the public.

Gradually the larger animals were moved to Monarto, including the last elephant in SA, who moved in 1991. She passed away just a few years later.

As the larger animals were moved to more appropriate, free-range enclosures, many of the remaining enclosures have been renovated to provide more modern, spacious and natural enclosures for the animals who remain at Adelaide Zoo.

That doesn’t mean there are not many animals here anymore, there are still around 2500 of them.

Many animals are endangered, perhaps even extinct in the wild, and Adelaide Zoo is part of the captive breeding program to save them from extinction altogether.

One of the primate enclosures, home to the Gibbons

Over the years there have been some notable animals that have lived at the zoo. Of course, the elephants were always favourites, and I remember the last elephant, Samorn, pulling us around the zoo as a kid.

She was a gift from the King of Thailand and. lived at the zoo for 35 years before her move to Monarto. Today there are no elephants in South Australia, although there are plans to bring them to Monarto again soon.

George the Orangutan and Newsboy the Hippo are two other favourites. Newsboy’s story is a real sign of the way things have changed over time.

When he was at the zoo, the front page of the daily afternoon Adelaide newspaper, “The News” would be stuck to his side and he would become a walking advertisement for the paper!

Half of the giraffe enclosure. That gate at the back leads to another area just as big on the other side of the elephant house

Adelaide Zoo has seen the last in Australia of some species too. As the laws for the importation of animals have changed over the years, some animals will never be seen here again.

The best-known of these are the flamingos. Adelaide Zoo had the last two remaining flamingos in Australia.

A Greater Flamingo called “Greater” died in 2014 and was believed to be the oldest flamingo anywhere in the world – he was 83 years old. The last Chilean flamingo died in 2018.

Today Adelaide Zoo is notable for having the only giant pandas in Australia. The pair, Funi and Wang Wang are on loan from China and have been in Adelaide since 2009.

They are here until at least 2024, and while hope seems to be fading, there still could yet be the pitter-patter of tiny panda feet at some point in the future.

Visiting Adelaide Zoo

Today Adelaide Zoo is a much leafier and more modern zoo than it was when I was a child. Rather than seeing each animal in its cage, there are more mixed habitats with multiple animals co-existing.

To visit comfortably and see all the animals, you will need at least 2-3 hours here. If you have kids, I would add an extra hour – there is a great new playground that is (according to my niece and nephew) almost as good as seeing all the animals!

Just a small section of the Nature Playground

On arrival, take a look at the signs near the entrance to the zoo to see the times for keeper talks and feeds throughout the day.

Not every day is the same, but generally, you will be able to learn more about the lions, tigers, giant pandas, penguins and more during your visit. There will also be a free-flight bird show each day too on the main lawn.

Like other zoos, Adelaide Zoo has moved away from just a place to see animals into a place of conservation and education. It is the only zoo in Australia to be fully owned by a conservation charity.

There are a wide variety of animal experiences available to help visitors to learn about the animals and raise funds for much-needed conservation projects.

They can range from short “Feeding the Giraffes” experiences right up to being a “Keeper for a Day” (Note that due to covid, some of the experiences are still unavailable).

Even young children can participate in feeding the giraffes. You will note masks are mandatory when close to the animals.

You don’t have to pay extra to learn a little about the zoo, the animals and the work they are doing here.

Every day, on the hour from 10 am until 3 pm, a free tour departs from near the main entrance to show visitors some of the interesting parts of the zoo.

Between the Education Centre and the farmyard area is the Animal Health Centre. There is a viewing window to one of the examination rooms/operating theatres, allowing those interested to watch some of the medical checkups that occur.

This won’t be for everyone, but some people (including my nephew) like to see what animals are in the hospital.

There is a sign warning that autopsies are sometimes carried out here, so if you have young children, it might be worth checking on what is happening before they see.

Looking through the window at the animal hospital. No animals in residence today.

Five of the buildings within the zoo are now heritage listed, including the original elephant house. It is now used to house a display of animal skeletons and artefacts. It’s incredible to imagine that this building housed an elephant!

The historic elephant house

While much of the zoo has been updated and modernised, there are still a few empty reminders around the place of how the animals used to live, such as this enclosure that was once home to a polar bear.

The no-longer-used polar bear enclosure. I’m not even sure a polar bear would fit in that pool!

Adelaide Zoo has two different cafe areas (although the second may only be open at busy times) and many more areas around the zoo that are great for picnics, making it easy to pack your lunch to bring with you too.

When my kids were young, the picnic lunch was an integral part of a visit to the zoo.

Along with all of the leafy outside enclosures, you will find a reptile house, a nocturnal house and huge bird aviaries.

The leafy inside of the Australian bird aviary with a bush curlew standing on the path

Of course, there are children’s zoo areas where kids can feed goats and see farm animals and other domestic animals like guinea pigs and rabbits.

The Children’s Zoo, where you will find the farmyard animals

Many educational signs around the zoo touch on issues known to affect some of the animals in the wild, such as this one about palm oil.

I you look at the bottom right of this sign, it says Menz uses responsible palm oil – so go buy some Fruchocs 🙂

Adelaide Zoo also runs a lot of events throughout the year, such as Easter egg hunts and a teddy bears’ picnic. They are also involved with the Illuminate Adelaide festival in July with their Light Creatures show lighting up the zoo at night.

Another great way to experience the zoo a little differently is to do an Adelaide Zoo After Dark tour.

You won’t see many of the animals, but you will learn about the dark and sometimes macabre history – perhaps you’ll even spot one of the ghosts that are said to live here.

So Should You Visit Adelaide Zoo?

I’ve been visiting Adelaide Zoo all my life, first as a child, then with my children, and more recently with my niece and nephew.

In preparation for writing this, I visited by myself and was particularly mindful of how the enclosures looked and how I felt about how the animals are kept, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I loved seeing that the Tamarins and some of the other primates have runs that allow them to explore the treetops outside of their enclosures.

I loved the huge aviaries which allowed many of the birds to fly. I particularly noticed there are fewer animals in more space.

The Golden Lion Tamarins love running back and forth above visitors’ heads
Cages in the trees let the primates wander a little more without completely disappearing

The giant panda area has been around for a while now, but I’ve always liked how much space they have. Funi and Wang Wang each have their quarters, both an inside space and an outside area each too.

The inside section of the panda enclosure. You can see one of the pandas at the back on the left

There are only a few big cats at Adelaide Zoo now, with most of them now living at Monarto in huge open-range enclosures.

The tiger enclosure at Adelaide is huge, but I would love to see the lions have a little more space – although the space they have now used to house lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs, so has certainly improved.

Everything you can see here is the lion enclosure. They have access to at least two of the “old style” enclosures on the left and then a big open area where the grass is on the right. Compared to the huge open range area at Monarto though, this seems so small.

Adelaide Zoo does not have a lot of marine animals. There is one Australian Sea Lion and some little penguins, both of which are found nearby along the South Australian coastline.

Sea Lion Enclosure

Overall Adelaide Zoo is a good experience and I do think your entry fee is going towards a good cause, helping both Adelaide Zoo and Monarto Safari Park to be involved in incredible conservation projects.

There is a fine line between gratuitously having captive animals and having them for education and conservation, and Adelaide Zoo does a good job of balancing it.

Kids will, of course, love it here, and I think it’s a must if you are visiting Adelaide with kids.

This used to house the pigmy hippo – now it’s one of two places to see the little penguins.

If you can, I recommend visiting both Adelaide Zoo and Monarto Safari Park – they are completely different and both offer great experiences.

There is a Two Visit Pass that will allow you to do a second visit (either to the same site or the other one) for half price.

Find all the ticket details on the website here.

For more things to do in Adelaide, take a look at these posts
Adelaide 3-Day Itinerary
100 Adelaide Experiences
Things to do in Glenelg

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About the author

Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred, living here for her whole life. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.