Get behind the scenes with the amazing Wild Encounters at Zoo Atlanta
Behind the scenes at Grant Park’s Zoo Atlanta, the elephant paddock looks like something out of “Jurassic Park”: giant fans circulate air overhead, huge sliding gates open and close various housing areas for the world’s largest land animal, and an ever-present yellow “stay behind this” line rings around the space to warn visitors just how far a curious trunk might reach.
The elephant house is a far cry from the zoo’s earliest incarnation, founded 133 years ago when businessman George V. Gress purchased a handful of bears, lions and other animals from a bankrupt traveling circus, donating them to the city of Atlanta and giving birth to what we now know as Zoo Atlanta. Clearly, much has changed in Grant Park in the generations since.
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Today, more than 1,000 animals are housed at the modern zoo. And modern, scientific sensibilities have led to a far more direct relationship between the zoo as a tourist attraction and the zoo as an important participant in wildlife conservation.
Modern zoos—including Zoo Atlanta—exist to benefit conservation. They do so in three important ways: through research, through conservation put into practice, and through public programs to grow and fund wildlife advocacy.
The best of those programs at Zoo Atlanta? Wild Encounters; the hands-on, VIP-style experiences built to give you a glimpse of wildlife in a brand new light.
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“Wild Encounters are a really cool opportunity to make a lasting connection with an animal. For example, with the elephant encounter, it really helps getting to meet our two females Kelly and Tara. I think you’re more likely to care about elephants and want to do something for them conservation-wise because you met them. You get to learn more, and you also get an opportunity to appreciate the animal in a new way. When you actually stand right next to an elephant, it’s awe-inspiring. It’s spiritual. I’ve done it many times, but I don’t take it for granted,” said Rachel Davis, Zoo Atlanta’s director of communications.
Zoo Atlanta’s five wildlife encounters are available to the public each week, offering a unique way to interact with animals in a more up-close-and-personal way than a general admission ticket offers. The Wild Encounter program at Zoo Atlanta has been around since 2012.
And, the program is exactly how I came to join a small group of Wild Encounter participants for a sneak peek behind the curtain at the zoo’s Zambezi Elephant Center. After signing a waiver and getting basic instructions on expectations, our group was welcomed through a door marked “staff only.”
On the other side, the elephants’ sprawling indoor structure, where we were introduced to elephant keepers Nate Elgart and Caleb Ulick, and eventually brought out to meet Kelly, a 38-year-old, 7,890-pound female African elephant.
The trainers talked for the better part of an hour about the daily rhythms of the elephant program at the zoo and the way their work with Kelly and other Zoo Atlanta elephants supports elephant conservation globally.
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The team put Kelly through a series of commands and tricks, showcasing her intelligence, and then allowed us to feed her romaine lettuce by hand. There just aren’t a lot of words to describe the experience of an elephant snaking its trunk towards you; her fuzzy nostrils fumbling into your hand and sniffing like a wet dog nose attached to a vacuum hose, grabbing at food like a carnival game claw. It’s otherworldly.
At present, Zoo Atlanta is offering seasonal encounters with lemurs and warthogs, with elephant and giant panda encounters running year-round. The zoo also offers a year-round encounter with the giant Aldabra Tortoise, a massive species that can grow to 550 pounds and live to be 150 years old.
The Wild Encounters vary in cost—the warthog encounter is the least expensive at $35, while the panda encounter is the most expensive at $200—and you can book yours in advance online, or try your luck on the day you arrive.
The cost of Wild Encounters is in addition to the zoo entrance. But it’s also where the conservation rubber meets the road—a portion of proceeds from each of the zoo’s five Wild Encounters directly benefits outside organizations specific to that encounter. So, money raised from the elephant encounter benefits Conservation South Luangwa, while funds from the panda encounter benefit Red Panda Network. In short, each of the five Wild Encounters means more money in the pockets of important groups doing global conservation work.
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It’s probably a good idea to book early. The two most popular wild encounters—with the Giant Pandas and African Elephants—both draw consistent crowds. The real pro tip is to pick one of the “smaller” encounters; they cost less, are just as up-close and fun, and there’s a great chance your group could have the encounter to yourself.
Final tips: keep an eye on the Wild Encounters page on zooatlanta.org. While some encounters will end as the weather gets colder—lemurs end on Oct. 31 and warthogs on Nov. 13—other new encounters are also added from time to time. And, as the holidays approach, keep in mind that Wild Encounters make a great gift while simultaneously benefiting global wildlife conservation. You can score a Wild Encounter gift card for the holidays at zooatlanta.org.
See you (behind the scenes) at the zoo!