When I first moved to Hawai’i back in 2001, I lived in Waikiki where I was managing a hostel. It was a good life, but when you live in a hostel, you have to find places where you can get away from the backpackers. For me, it was the Honolulu Zoo. I used to grab a book, pay my kama’aina admission and go sit in front of the chimpanzees (and yes, I found it funny that I’d leave the monkeyhouse of the hostel to go hang out in the monkeyhouse at the zoo). I’d wander the paths of the zoo, sit in the grass, try to psychicly link up with Rusty the Orangutan (who was in a much smaller enclosure by himself in those days) or see if I could spot the lions, wild African dogs, or other shy predators in their world class enclosures. The Honolulu Zoo was magnificent.
I was excited to go back and visit old friends – in particular, I wondered if Rusty would still be alive. The good news is that he is. The bad news was that the zoo is sadly much dilapidated. There were still crowds of people in the zoo – attendance isn’t the problem.
I doubt that those crowds will be going back though. The chimp enclosure – to me the star attraction of the zoo has been closed indefinitely because a wily chimp named Pu’iwa managed to put holes in the concrete, scale the wall, and jump over the two electric wires back in May. Rusty’s newer, more expensive, bigger enclosure has sort of slipped into being about the same as his old enclosure and his much fan-fared mate, Violet, who was brought so that he wouldn’t be alone – she was on one side of the enclosure and Rusty was all the way on the other – not nubial bliss – that’s for sure – more like ten years of unhappy marriage.
Granted, we were there on a hot day and most of the animals were hiding – but it wasn’t just that. The grounds appear to be less well kept, the grass less watered, the overall feeling of the zoo was kind of – let go. The aviary was far from the spectacular exhibit it once was, the reptile house was closed along with the chimp cage and other exhibits, Louise the Hippo is alone and seems depressed which isn’t surprising after her friend Rosie died suddenly amidst complications arising from construction of a new enclosure – hint – new enclosures shouldn’t kill the animals they are built for. The petting zoo had been updated and the zoo probably spent a lot of money to do that – but there were fewer animals and frankly, it wasn’t as good as before. In short, the Honolulu Zoo is a mess and to compound things – they actually raised the price of admission while closing exhibits – I felt cheated. That’s not a good thing. My daughter – who is six – had a great time – but honestly, she has a good time anywhere we can buy her Dippin Dots and see some animals. My wife couldn’t wait to leave – she found it depressing – and couldn’t understand why I had talked about it so fondly. Sadly, not only did the Honolulu Zoo not live up to my stories, but it lagged behind smaller, less well funded, less interesting (well, less interesting before) zoos. A look at Trip Advisor reviews shows that it wasn’t just us feeling the dilapidation…words and phrases like ‘disappointed’ ‘eh’ ‘small’ ‘didn’t see any animals’ ‘too expensive for what we got’ pop up again and again.
It doesn’t make me feel good to write this, but I can’t recommend the Honolulu Zoo as a place to visit any longer. The price just isn’t worth what you get for it. I hope that changes. I hope that the city and the zoo administration can figure out how to solve the problems. Here’s a good start – water the grass as much as your average golf course on Oahu and maybe hire a golf course grounds keeper, post the feeding times of the animals, lower the admission price by three dollars until all the exhibits are reopened, reopen the exhibits, get more baby goats and other baby animals in the petting zoo, put out a call for volunteers to help with feeding, groundskeeping, animal care, and more. And probably this is the biggest piece of advice I can offer – stop trying to earn more money and instead try to give more value – that’s the biggest issue with the zoo right now – there seems to be no one trying to give value and unless that happens – attendance and revenue will continue to plummet, enclosures will continue to degrade, accredidations will continue to be taken away, and eventually the zoo will just be another natatorium waiting for a developer to turn it into a resort.