"Wow, this looks like a great place," exclaimed my six-year-old daughter, Rayna, before we'd even gotten out of the car at the Dallas Zoo. The towering giraffe statue out front was all it took. Her enthusiasm propelled us through the entrance and up the bamboo-lined ramp that leads to the Monorail Safari. This popular attraction gives visitors a seated, one-mile tour through the decade-old Wilds of Africa exhibit. But as fate would have it, a transformer had just blown and the ride was shut down.Braving the mid-August heat, we proceeded on foot. An employee suggested that we walk around on the 1,500-foot-long Nature Trail and see the gorillas. Walk around we did, but monkey-see we didn't. The ailing transformer, we were later told, also supplies the juice to the electric fences that surround the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center and the Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest, and the zoo was in a primate lockdown. Nevertheless, the trail is well shaded and has much to recommend it. We first encountered two gentle okapi. "They're part zebra," Rayna observed, noting their stripes. In fact, these animals—rare in the wild as well as in captivity—are more closely related to giraffes, and Dallas has one of the most successful okapi breeding programs in the country. They approached us and we noticed their unusually long tongues, which they use to reach tender leaves. "They can lick their noses," Rayna said.
We returned the next day, delighted to find the monorail back in action and discovered that there was much we had missed, like playful Nubian ibex (similar to mountain goats), herds of high-leaping impalas (African antelope), and graceful herons and pelicans poised along the banks of a "river" where the monorail passes beneath a waterfall.
For some reason, giving wild animals human names makes them especially endearing. In ZooNorth, the older section of the zoo, we were given a tour by a staffer who introduced us to Poppa, a 53-year-old hippopotamus; Denise the camel; Boris the lion; and Chula the rhino (girlfriend of Nikki, also a rhino). The layout here—with its gazebo and pretty WPA stone bridge from the thirties, which once led to the main entrance—retains an old-fashioned quaintness despite the adjacent $7 million children's zoo that was under construction on our visit (it opened last month). ZooNorth is also where you will find the $4.5 million ExxonMobil Endangered Tiger Habitat, a naturalistic one-acre exhibit that is home to a pair of Sumatran tigers. An Asian-style pagoda set on a bridge over their holding area allows you to observe them at close range. As I admired these awesome creatures, I had to wonder why Boris and his fellow felines around the corner on cat row, as our guide called it—a series of chain-link cages built in the fifties—aren't given similar fat-cat treatment. Maybe MGM could sponsor them? 650 S. R. L. Thornton Freeway (I-35E), Dallas (214-670-5656; www.dallas-zoo.org). Open daily (except Christmas Day) 9 to 5. General admission $6, senior citizens $4, children 3 to 11 $3, under 3 free; Monorail Safari $1.50, under 3 free. Parking $3. Wheelchair accessible.