Face to face with a red panda
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Wildlife and Wild Times at East Tennessee Zoos

The Knoxville Zoo is the go-to zoo for red pandas.

“We are second only to the Rotterdam Zoo on breeding red pandas successfully,” explains Alison Swank, director of marketing and education, as she joins us for a stroll through the zoo. “We have had 104 red panda births. A lot of the red pandas that are in zoos around the country came from here.” The furry critters, native to the eastern Himalayas, are endangered. They also are very cute and fun to watch. With electric orange-brown faces and backs, they are sometimes called fire foxes. The zoo has given them a spacious home with leafy trees in which to make themselves comfortable and plenty of bamboo to keep them well fed.

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Looking for otters at the Knoxville Zoo.

Alison says red pandas aren’t alone in feeling comfortable here. In fact, the feel of the place is a big reason she likes working here. “The Knoxville Zoo is a wonderful place to have fun, spend time with family and friends, or just relax and enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings along with some of our animal friends,” she says. The zoo hosts about 400,000 guests a year.

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One of the Knoxville Zoo’s white rhinos.

The Knoxville Zoo is also the home of white rhinos, awesome animals that can weigh more than three tons. The zoo is among the top five in the country for breeding the white rhino, a native to southern Africa. More than 28 white rhinos have been born at this zoo. It opened in 1948.

The 53-acre Knoxville Zoo bustles with activity, even on a rainy Saturday. Kids everywhere! Parents try to keep up with their youngsters’ excited pace, and adults clearly enjoy themselves just as much as the kids. The burly bears at Black Bear Falls grab your attention the minute you enter the front gates. Then, the penguins and camels make you look. The big animals at Grasslands Africa and Valley of the Kings —elephants, giraffes, gazelles, baboons, lions—watch you as much as you watch them.

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A pair of lions at the Knoxville Zoo

There are more big guys to come if you follow the path to tiger, gorilla and chimp habitats. Not everything is large. Meerkats, snakes, turtles, and otters also have a place here. Inside Butterfly Gardens, 800 winged beauties flutter wherever they wish, mostly to fruit, but also to the brim of my baseball cap.

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Parakeets and songbirds at the Knoxville Zoo

The Clayton Family Kids Cove is a hive of activity. Children can do everything from ride a waterfall to play in a giant sandbox to milk a pretend cow. Hundreds of parakeets fill the air with chatter as they zoom around clusters of tree branches.

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A snow leopard at the Chattanooga Zoo

While the Knoxville Zoo earns high marks for being one of the state’s best family-friendly destinations, other animal showplaces also provide fun and learning experiences. Snow leopards are celebrities at the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park. Czar and Kasimir gave birth to twins Maliha and Everest last year. More than 300 animals representing 130 different species make their home here. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums calls it the “best little zoo in America.”

A shining star among East Tennessee zoos is Brights Zoo. This private, family-owned zoo stretches out into farm land between Greeneville and Jonesborough. It has many rare and endangered species, including addax, bongo and oryx, in addition to giraffes, spider monkeys, Bactrian camels and pygmy goats. The favorite animal for school children is Big Jack, the red kangaroo. “The kids think he is flexing his muscles. Really, he just likes to stretch,” says Melinda Bright.

“We have people who stay all day,” says Melinda. Picnic tables are available for parties, Animal Tracks Day Camps, and plenty of visitors. This is the fifth year the zoo is open to the public.

East Tennessee also offers several petting zoos that feature farm animals, parrots, deer, and exotic creatures from around the world. Petting zoos are located in Sweetwater, Sevierville, and Clinton. In Bybee. there’s the Briarwood Auto Safari where you take in a peaceful drive while viewing the numerous animals.

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Petting a furry friend at the Chattanooga Zoo

Hi! I’m Linda Lange. As a travel writer living in Knoxville, I fully appreciate barbecue, bluegrass and Dollywood. My story...Read on

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