At Naples Zoo, lemurs relax on one of the primate islands — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Naples Zoo, the oldest attraction in Naples, Fla., began as a botanical garden in the early 1900s. Although it has a retro feel that hearkens back to its genesis as an animal attraction in 1969, the zoo is thoroughly modern in its mission to conserve and educate. Current projects will update and add to the zoo, which boasts a number of rare wildlife species and experiences.
A short drive from downtown Old Naples, the property was considered wilderness back in its days as Caribbean Gardens - a haven of tropical vegetation planted by early conservationist Dr. Henry Nehrling and visited by President Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and David Fairchild of Fairchild Gardens in Miami.
The next chapter of zoo history introduced wildlife lovers affectionately known as "Jungle Larry" and "Safari Jane" Tetzlaff. Without compromising the lush gardens and their rare vegetation, the Tetzlaffs brought wildlife to what is now a 44-acre property.
Trainers parade a serval kitten around the Safari Canyon Theater stage — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
One of the zoo's first innovations, the Primate Expedition Cruise, still offers free boat trips around a number of islands where monkeys and lemurs cavort, swinging across ropes and climbing trees for passengers and their cameras.
A number of other educational programs followed, including wildlife showcases on the rock-framed stage of the open-air Safari Canyon Theater. Currently, trainers introduce the new, somewhat clumsy but insanely adorable serval kittens that the zoo has acquired at daily shows. The theater's feature show brings small predators on stage for a multimedia production including a filmed wildlife video.
At Meet the Keeper programs, zoo keepers feed different animals throughout the day as they feed the audience tidbits of educational facts about each species, cheetahs, giraffes, South African lions and black bears among them. Snakes Alive! continues an original Tetzlaff family tradition with super-sized and venomous snakes on show. The Tetzlaff family, incidentally, is still involved in zoo operations.
Some of the newest additions to the wildlife census include the giraffes, which visitors can hand-feed, plus leopards, black bears, Madagascar fosas and slender-horned gazelles. The latter two are among Naples Zoo's roll call of rarely seen animals. It is the only zoo in Florida with fosas, and only 250 of the gazelles are left in the wild.
One of the play areas at Naples Zoo — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Furthermore, Naples Zoo is one of only a dozen accredited zoos in the United States to exhibit striped hyenas and one of only four zoos with those bad-rep beasts, African honey badgers. The zoo specializes somewhat in predators, from rare Malayan tigers and cheetahs to alligators and coyotes.
In 2015, the zoo plans to add a 19-foot-plus reticulated python exhibit, says Tim L. Tetzlaff, director of conservation and communications. By August 2014, parking and entryway improvements will be complete, as Naples Zoo partners on a developing two-mile Collier County Greenway project.
In many cases, visitors get quite close to the animals, although the cages and pens are ample. Signage teaches about all of the zoo's inhabitants as well as fair trade coffee, sustainable seafood and other conservation measures.
Shaded playgrounds along the paved, accessible pathway let kids blow off steam, plus there are picnic areas and healthy food concessions. Just follow the zoo map, which plots historic vegetation as well as animal exhibits and other features.