The fledgling Austin Zoo is basically a big, no-frills barnyard full of exotic jungle beasts as well as miscellaneous domestic breeds. Situated on the city’s southwestern edge, it started out in 1992 as a petting zoo for small fry and has since expanded to include 106 species, from Shetland ponies to New Guinea singing dogs. It’s a rescue zoo: Nearly all of the animals are rejects from private collections or strays that were taken in by the zoo’s staff. (Full disclosure: The zoo’s director, Cindy Carroccio, is the sister of Texas Monthly writer-at-large Suzy Banks.) I visited it in the company of two young friends, ten-year-old Caitlin and six-year-old Kelsey, zoo regulars who know most of the animals by name. We first saw Dilbert the dog, an enormous Anatolian shepherd that is bigger than both girls put together; he likes to hang out around the air-conditioned entrance, like a canine version of the greeter at Wal-Mart. Moving into the zoo proper, we came upon a fetching farm scene: old-fashioned red-painted barns and stables adorned with tin signs and farming paraphernalia. Near one building a worker milked a goat, and a turkey who happened along stuck her head in the foaming bucket for a drink. Only the chain-link pens and the many cages tipped me off that I wasn’t visiting Old McDonald’s farm.First we made a beeline for the marmosets’ cage, where two babies were the center of attention; clinging tightly to their parents, they curiously cocked tiny heads in the direction of the noisy, fur-challenged primates on the other side of the bars. We also watched squirrel monkeys, Bubba the baboon, a mangabey, brown lemurs (which grunt just like pigs), and several rowdy capuchins; one of the latter got a big laugh when he knocked over his metal food dish and scared himself with the noise. Nearby are capybaras—which Caitlin identified as “the largest land rodents” (she was right; I checked). The little nilgai antelope are friendly, and a snaggletoothed llama likes to spit. Feline attractions include lions—Molly, Leroy, and Tush—a malevolent-eyed black panther, servals (midsize wildcats much like ocelots), and three exuberant young tigers who like to play king of the mountain and take turns evicting one another from the prime spot atop their huge rock. The servals were enjoying a brunch of frozen guinea pigs, but “the tigers eat cow hearts,” Kelsey informed me. “That’s gross!”
Some of the Austin Zoo’s animals are visible only from seats aboard its minitrain, the Rawhide Rocket. (The zebras, for example, were moved to a private area outside the tracks to distance them from the lions, whose scent makes them nervous.) The twenty-minute ride through the Hill Country offers a pretty view and a decent breeze. The engineer’s patter, however, and the wooden cutouts of fairies, bunnies, and such are strictly for the pre-K set. Two other quibbles: The zoo’s rocky slopes challenge even the hardiest of ankles, and there is no food available, only cold water and plenty of picnic tables in case you want to BYO. 10807 Rawhide Trail, Austin; from the Y in Oak Hill (where U.S. 290 splits off from Texas Highway 71), proceed west on 290 for 2.5 miles to Circle Drive; turn right and go 1.5 miles to Rawhide Trail, then turn right again and go 1 mile to the zoo (512-288-1490; www.austinzoo.org). Open every day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) 10 to 6. General admission $6, students $5, senior citizens $4, children 2 to 12 $4, under 2 free. Train tickets $2. Not wheelchair accessible.