When I first walked into the Caldwell Zoo, I ran smack into a wall of stench radiating from the flamingo island (summed up by one young nose-pinching passerby as "stinky"). Happily, the inevitable eau de zoo didn't linger as I wound my way down a path to the East African exhibit. I ducked out of the sun into a fantastic sheltered split-level display: On the top half, tiny, colorful birds twittered about on twigs and branches in a sunlit aviary, and on the artificially illuminated lower half, an aquarium was packed with brightly colored little fish. I could have stared for hours, but I was eager to move on to the zoo's crown jewel: the African Overlook. After grabbing a soda from the Chacula Café, I wandered outside and sat on a picnic table to survey three acres of rolling green pastureland dotted with zebras, giraffes, lions, kudus, and elephants. Giant thatched-grass umbrellas offered the animals shade, and hidden moats kept the more docile ones out of the lions' way. As I walked around the fence enclosing the pasture, clearings in the brush allowed a closer look at the various species. /p>
Feeling amply rewarded, I looked down at my map and realized that, although an hour had passed, I had seen only half of the zoo. The other half turned out to be just as spacious and well-landscaped as the first but not as exotic, since the animals are more familiar North American and Texas species such as deer, alligators, and foxes. Throughout, the exhibits successfully evoke a wilderness atmosphere, and waterfalls and running streams appear to keep the residents cooled off. Best times to go: during the giraffe feedings, when kids can feed the long-neck; the alligator feedings; the otter demonstrations, when a zookeeper discusses the animals' behavior and coaxes them to slither down a slide; and the elephant demonstrations, when a zookeeper cues the pachyderms to strike various poses (call for schedule). Corner of Gentry Parkway and Martin Luther King Boulevard, just east of U.S. 69, Tyler (903-593-0121). Open every day: October 1 through March 31 9:30 to 4:30, April 1 through September 30 9:30 to 6. Free. Wheelchair accessible.