Location: Gage Park (the park’s at the intersection of 10th and Gage), Topeka, KS
Cost: There are discounts available for groups; they also participate in reciprocal memberships, so if you have a membership to the Kansas City Zoo, for instance, you can get in for 1/2 price with your membership card and a photo ID.
Seniors (ages 65 and over): $4.75
Children (ages 3 to 12): $4.25
Children under 2: Free
Web site: http://topekazoo.org/
If you grew up in Topeka, like I did, but haven’t been to the zoo for a while, I encourage you to go and check it out. It’s a discordant trip down memory lane: parts of the zoo, such as the Animals and Man building, remain virtually unchanged since I first started coming to the zoo in the late 1970s. Other parts are so massively changed as to be virtually unrecognizable.
The Topeka Zoo has put a great deal of effort into landscaping its grounds, and they’re clearly focusing on naturalistic environments for the animals in their care. Many of the creatures have indoor/outdoor enclosures, and many have enclosures that are designed to blend in with the natural landscape as much as possible. Although the black bears, for instance, are just feet away from busy Gage Boulevard, you hardly notice the cars whizzing by.
Although there aren’t as many animals at the Topeka Zoo as there are at the Kansas City Zoo, you can get very close to some of the animals in their enclosures. Many of the exhibits are designed so only a pane of glass separates you from the creatures on display. You can sit next to a gorilla or lion and pass the time of day, and see first-hand how enormous these creatures really are. For children who are vision-impaired, there are many opportunities to be near large animals that move, so they may be able to appreciate animals here that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy at a zoo where the animals are further away from the viewing area.
The highlight of the Topeka Zoo is the Rainforest: you leave Kansas and enter a dense rainforest by simply walking through a door. Very few animals in the rainforest are in cages; rather, you’re walking through their home. It’s hot and humid in this building, even in the depths of winter; my father used to love to come and eat lunch here in the tropic warmth while it was sleeting and miserable outside.
This building has all of the sounds one would expect: birds chirping, leaves rustling, and water burbling down the indoor waterfall. Birds and small mammals scurry across the paths, bats hang from high branches, sloths sleep overhead. It’s easy to navigate and has lots of sensory input for those who have lost their sight.
There is a very small ‘petting zoo’ where you can attempt to feed animals overpriced kibble (it costs 25 cents to get food, and often the machine dispenses only two or three pieces of kibble); the bars are really close together, so you can’t really reach through to pet the sheep and goats. The ducks and geese in the nearby pond are eager eaters, and they’re able to reach their long necks out to eat from your hand if you’re feeling brave.
There is no braille at this zoo, and what few interactive elements there are are very vision-based. If you visit the chimpanzees, be careful of small children: the bamboo fencing is wide enough spaced that kids could fairly easily slip between the bars. There are tortoises housed on the floor below, so they may be eager to look, and a fall would be costly.