North Carolina Zoo

North Carolina Zoo
North Carolina Zoo

Zoo logo

Zoo entrance
Date opened August 13, 1976 (Official) [1]
Location Asheboro, North Carolina, USA
Land area 1,371 acres
Coordinates 35°37′46″N 79°45′52″W / 35.6295°N 79.7645°W / 35.6295; -79.7645Coordinates: 35°37′46″N 79°45′52″W / 35.6295°N 79.7645°W / 35.6295; -79.7645
Number of animals 1100+.[2]
Number of species 250.[2]
Annual visitors 700,000.[2]
Memberships AZA [3]
Major exhibits African Pavilion, Forest Glade, Sonora Desert, Watani Grasslands Reserve

The North Carolina Zoo is located in Asheboro in Randolph County, North Carolina in the Uwharrie Mountains near the geographic center of the state, approximately 75 miles (121 km) west of Raleigh, NC, United States. At 1,371 acres (555 ha) , it is the largest "walk-through" natural-habitat zoo in the world, the first in the United States, and only one of two state-owned zoos in the United States.[2] The NC Zoo has over 1100 animals from more than 250 species primarily representing Africa and North America. The zoo is open 364 days a year and receives more than 700,000 visitors annually



In 1967, the North Carolina legislature created the NC Zoological Garden Study Commission to examine the feasibility of a state zoo.[4] The nine-member commission found that a zoo was both feasible and desirable. The next year, the North Carolina Zoological Society was formed with the goal of raising funds and public support for the zoo project.[5] The same year, the legislature created the NC Zoological Authority to oversee the project. The site in Randolph County was selected from 6 sites after a 2-year search by the zoo commission, led by State Representative Archie McMillan of Wake County. After the selection of the site, its 1,371 acres (5.55 km2) were donated to the state.[4] A $2 million dollar bond was passed and Governor Robert W. Scott dedicated the site in spring 1972. Construction of the North Carolina Zoo began in 1974 with the official opening date of August 13, 1976.[1] The first animals, two Galapagos Tortoises arrived in 1973 and an interim zoo was opened in 1974. In 1978, Ham the Chimp, the first hominid in outer space, was moved to the zoo from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.. He lived there until his death in 1983 from a heart attack.[6] After construction delays and difficulty securing private funding, an additional $7 million were given by the General Assembly,[7] and the first permanent exhibit opened in 1979.[5]

The zoo has continued to expand ever since. Throughout the 1980s, the exhibits of the Africa region opened and in 1984 the zoo received accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In 1993, the first of the North America exhibits was completed, showcasing the animals and habitats of the Sonora Desert. The final North America exhibit opened in 1996.

Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the zoo spearheaded efforts to rebuild and maintain the Kabul Zoo. Beginning in 2002, the Zoo helped raise funds, organize animal purchases, and provide expertise in animal care, exhibit reconstruction and renovation, staff training, and business strategy. In 2005 the NC Zoo employed a full-time staff member to live for a year in Kabul to assist with the training and retention of staff.[8] Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the NC Zoo once again took the lead in the rebuilding efforts at the Baghdad Zoo.[9] The zoo's exhibits have been replaced and the staff now coordinates with the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in a program set up by the zoo.

A temporary Australian exhibit opened in 2004 and featured the largest collection of Australian plants on the East Coast until 2006.[4] The North Carolina Zoo is the nation’s first state-supported zoo and remains one of only two state zoos (the other state being Minnesota).[5] In November 2008, the zoo announced that in the first 10 months of 2008, its operating revenue had increased 18% from its intake the previous year.[10]

Future plans

On April 1, 2010, the Zoo announced it had acquired adjacent forestland to bring the total land tract to over 2,000 acres (8.1 km2).[11] The main exhibits currently occupy about 500 acres (2.0 km2). There are plans for expansion to include animals and plants from Asia, which could include tigers, rhinos, and orangutans with the goal of attracting an additional 300,000 people a year.[2][12] There are also plans for a convention center and a hotel over looking an animal exhibit to establish the zoo as a multi-day destination.[12]

The African Pavilion has also been slated for replacement. In 2008, the state government provided $600,000 for the replacement planning with an additional $400,000 from the Zoo Society.[13] A new exhibit complex focused on Africa's aquatic ecosystems is also still in the planning stages.[14]


A Polar Bear and its enclosure in the North America section of the zoo.

The zoo is home to 1100 animals of more than 200 species. It is home to the largest collection of chimpanzees of any zoo in America[14] as well as the largest collection of Alaskan seabirds in the country.


The North Carolina Zoo consists of two main areas: "Africa" and "North America" on opposite ends. There are parking lots located on both ends, so during peak season, visitors can start their day from either side. With approximately five miles of walking paths, the zoo also provides trams and air-conditioned buses for visitors.

The North Carolina Zoo was the first American zoo to incorporate the "natural habitat" philosophy – presenting animals together with plants in exhibits that resemble the habitats in which they would be found in the wild. Most animals are kept in large expanses of land, which reduces many of the behavior problems that can be caused by close confinement. The 37-acre (150,000 m2) African Plains exhibit alone is as large as many entire zoos.

North America

In the North American half, the swamps of the southeast are to be seen in "Cypress Swamp" area, home to alligators, cougars, and a variety of reptiles and amphibians. "Rocky Coast" depicts the rocky coasts of the Pacific Northwest, with polar bears, California sea lions, harbor seals, arctic foxes, and the Alaskan seabirds. The streams of North Carolina can be seen in the "Streamside" exhibit with bobcats, otters, and a number of snakes and fish, including the critically endangered Cape Fear shiner. The "Prairie" enclosure shows off the enormous bison and elk of the great plains. The flora and fauna of the American Southwest are on display in the glass-domed "Sonoran Desert," which houses ocelots, coatis, a number of bat species, and a variety of free-flight birds. Black bears, grizzlies and red wolves also each have their own exhibits.

Several African Elephants roam the Watani Grasslands exhibit


The "Forest Edge" is a 3.5-acre (14,000 m2), lightly wooded grassland enclosure where zebras, giraffes, and ostriches wander together. The "Watani Grasslands" mimic the great savanna of Africa and are home to rhinos, African elephants, Thomson's gazelle, gemsbok, waterbucks, ostriches, and greater kudu. Chimpanzees, lions, western lowland gorilla, red river hogs and one of the largest baboon troops in the country each have their own exhibit in the African half of the zoo.

Lemurs from neighboring Madagascar were added to the Africa section of the zoo in 2010 after a $100,000 refurbishment of the former Patas Monkey exhibit, one of the first exhibits when the zoo opened in June 1980.[15]


A female Eclectus Parrot in the Aviary

The R. J. Reynolds Forest Aviary recreates the hot, humid conditions of a tropical forest. It displays more than three thousand tropical plants and allows visitors to walk among 35 species of free-flying tropical birds. Since 2007, the aviary has also been home four species of poison dart frogs. The Aviary was listed among the top 10 American habitat exhibits in the US by USA Today.[16]


The zoo is home to a large collection of art, primarily sculpture but also murals, mosaics, and paintings. Primarily depictions of animals and their habitats, the artwork represents a number of different styles and uses a variety of materials including marble, steel, bronze, fiberglass, limestone, glass, cement, and others. The zoo's art is intended to enliven and enrich the zoo experience and help fulfill its mission by "promoting individual discovery and new ways of thinking."[17] David Jones, the director of the zoo, said "We want the individual art works to be attractive and intriguing in their own right, (but) the more they make people think and question the better."[17] The two largest sculptures are located at the zoo's main entrances. One, "Sum of the Parts" is a pile of large metal cubes, about a yard (1 m) on a side. Most of the cubes are shiny and depict extant species, but a few rusted cubes tumbled off to the side memorialize extinct species. The second, "The Elephant Group" depicts several large elephants in bronze. The works were installed in 1998.

Research and conservation


The NC Zoo is involved in several research and conservation projects. Together with the World Wildlife Fund and the government of Cameroon, the zoo participates in a project to track the movements of elephants through satellite tracking collars in order to expand reserves and parks in a way that protects the most crucial areas of their habitats.[18] The project was recognized in 2008 by the AZA with a Significant Achievement in Conservation Award.[19] Also in Cameroon and its neighbor, Nigeria, the zoo is working on a project to monitor the rare Cross River gorilla, a subspecies that was thought extinct for many years. Its remote habitat is difficult to access, so with the help of satellite imaging and GPS systems, the zoo coordinates with park rangers and other conservation groups to map their habitat and movements and assist efforts to ensure their continued survival.[20] In another project with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, the zoo has assisted with biodiversity surveys of the southwester region of the country. The surveys mapped suitable habitats, primarily the Omo and Oluwa forest reserves and recorded observed wildlife while documenting the level of human disturbance in the country of 150 million. After completing the survey, the team made several recommendations to maximize preservation of important habitat for forest elephants, chimpanzees, and other animals in the region.[21]

The zoo also operates projects in Uganda. An education project around Kibale National Park has been in place for over ten years and aims to educate young people about the purpose of the park and the value of biological conservation.[22] It also supports research at the Ngogo field research site inside the park. Ngogo researchers study primate plant use and rain forest regrowth after logging among other things, and removes illegal snares from the park which can seriously injure or kill protected animals. Along with Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the zoo is also advising in the construction and management of the Tooro Botanical Garden, which is designed to preserve and research the extraordinary biodiversity of the Albertine Rift region, with a special program for medicinal plant research.[23]

North Carolina

A number of projects are also underway in North Carolina. Protection and research of the hellbender salamander, which is globally recognized as near threatened but is classified as "endangered" in a number of US states including North Carolina, is the target of a project in the Appalachian Mountains. Due to the steep decline in population in the past 30 years, the zoo conducted a thorough survey, with the help of the AZA, into the hellbender populations of western North Carolina.[24]

The zoo is also involved in project to restore population of endangered Schweinitz's sunflower. In 2001, a road expansion project by the North Carolina Department of Transportation threatened a significant population of the flowers. The zoo partnered with a number of individuals and organizations and successfully managed their transplant to an off-road site, which continues to be managed and monitored by zoo horticulturalists.[25]


The NC Zoo keeps active breeding pairs of nearly all of its species. Since 1995, the Zoo has been a part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and reintroduction program. The Zoo has been home to 48 of these critically endangered animals, including a litter of 5, born at the zoo in 2002, which became the first captive-bred wolves to be adopted by wild parents.[26] The Zoo is also involved in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan and received two female gorillas in early 2010 as part of the effort.[27] The Aviary is also known for a number of high profile hatchings including the first US hatchings of the golden white-eye,[28] the red-faced liocichla,[29] the African pied barbet,[30] the golden-headed manakin, the horned puffin, the parakeet auklet and the thick-billed murre as well as the second US hatchings of the African grey-headed kingfisher and the African spoonbill.[29]


The zoo is part of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Its operation and development are overseen by a 15-member Zoo Council appointed by the Governor to six-year terms. The zoo is run by the Director, currently Dr. David Jones. Dr. Jones is a veterinarian and served as the CEO of the London Zoological Society and the Chairman of Flora and Fauna International among numerous other accomplishments before assuming his current role.[31] The zoo's annual operating budget is roughly $18 million. It receives around 60 percent from the state with the remainder being made up of ticket and merchandise sales and donations from the North Carolina Zoological Society, which remains the zoo's fund-raising and membership arm.[2] The Zoological Society is overseen by its Board of Directors.[32] The Chairman of the Board is always a member of the Zoological Council[33] and the two groups meet once annually.[32]


  1. ^ a b NC Zoo - North Carolina Zoo : Zoo History 1970's
  2. ^ a b c d e f NC Zoological Park Funding and Organization (PDF)
  3. ^ "List of Accredited Zoos and Aquariums". AZA. Retrieved 8 July 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c Brief History of the North Carolina Zoo
  5. ^ a b c North Carolina Zoological Society Timeline
  6. ^ Winston Salem Journal
  7. ^ Legislators Rescue Money-Plagues Zoo The Dispatch
  8. ^ Update on the Kabul Zoo Story NC Zoo
  9. ^ N.C. Zoo Vets Continue To Assist Baghdad Zoo NCDENR
  10. ^ Support grows for zoo
  11. ^ Zoo expands with acquisition of nature preserve. News & Record
  12. ^ a b "NC Zoo looks beyond cuts and into future". Greensboro News and Record. July 8, 2011. Retrieved August 06, 2011. 
  13. ^ 2008 Environmental Legislative Summary NCDENR (PDF)
  14. ^ a b Exhibits at the North Carolina Zoo (PDF)
  15. ^ "Lemur Exhibit Opens". NC Zoo Society News. September 2010. 
  16. ^ Zoo Tales: A Winter Respite. The Pilot
  17. ^ a b NC Zoo Art Brochure (PDF)
  18. ^ Cameroon Elephant Conservation NC Zoo
  19. ^ North Carolina Zoological Park Field Conservation and Research Programs (PDF)
  20. ^ Cross River Gorilla Conservation NC Zoo
  21. ^ Biodiversity of the Omo Forest, NC Zoo
  22. ^ UNITE NC Zoo
  23. ^ Tooro Botanical Garden NC Zoo
  24. ^ Hellbender Salamander NC Zoo
  25. ^ Schweinitz's Sunflowers NC Zoo
  26. ^ Red Wolves of Alligator River NC Zoo
  27. ^ Two New Gorillas on Exhibit NC Zoological Society
  28. ^ "Golden White-Eye" Fox8 WGHP News (video)
  29. ^ a b Zoo Tales - Rare Bird Species The Randolph Guide
  30. ^ N.C. Zoo's R.J. Reynolds Forest Aviary Reopens May 26 NCDENR
  31. ^ Dr. David Jones, DVM. Biography from the NC Zoo website
  32. ^ a b "The North Carolina Zoological Park Council and Society's Board of Directors Meet Jointly" Zoo and Aquarium Visitor
  33. ^ North Carolina statute creating the Zoological Council (PDF)

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