After two years and $33 million, the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo is twice the size, with 50 species and a two-story treehouse.

(Photo courtesy Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo)

When the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo outgrew its clunky 1940s architecture (including concrete bathtub-shaped exhibits), the beloved family staple closed to undergo a two-year makeover. Now it’s back at nearly double the size with a Loose-in-the-Zoo theme that seeks to immerse visitors in wildlife habitats with handcrafted warrens, tree trunks, and boulders.

The revamped facility, which reopened Nov. 12 after a $33 million renovation, expanded its footprint from 19,000 square feet to nearly 34,000, with larger classrooms and a deck for educational programs. The 18,000-square-foot zoo has more than 50 species of animals and a two-story, wheelchair-accessible treehouse.

“It gave us the chance to reimagine the zoo experience,” says the zoo’s Executive Director John Aikin. “The idea that people would look for animals where they would find them in nature was the big idea when we rebuilt.”

At its big reopening, the kids did just that, exploring every inch of the new space. They clambered around the net tubes of the treehouse for a bird’s-eye view of the hamerkop and ibises, scampered along the paths to the flamingo lagoon and meerkat desert, and descended into an acrylic tunnel for underwater views of the exotic fish. The inhabitants of this refurbished sanctuary include pets rescued from unsuitable homes, injured non-releasable wildlife, and conservation species under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)’s Species Survival Program. In anticipation of your visit, here are eight of the zoo’s cutest critters and a few fun facts about them.


(Photo courtesy Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo)

Edward the African Spurred Tortoise

At 140 pounds and 23 years of age, Edward the African spurred tortoise is the oldest and heaviest resident at the zoo. The zookeepers report that whenever Edward trundles by the cichlid tank during his daily walk around the grounds, the fish dart over to the glass to take a better look at him. Their theory is that these cichlids mistake Edward for a hippo (a creature they often nibble dead skin cells and algae off of in the wild). “Imagine you’re walking around with gummy bears stuck to you,” Aikin chuckles.


(Photo courtesy Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo)

Meerkats

The way that meerkats rear up on their back legs and prop themselves up with their tails is more than just an adorable pose to win over visitors. They are actually acting as lookouts, watching for danger while their buddies scavenge for food, and barking a warning when a predator is spotted. You know how a submarine pops up its periscope to check for enemy ships? It’s a little like that. Only cuter.


(Photo courtesy Johanna Hickle)

Manusela the Salmon-Crested Cockatoo 

Although the zoo’s ring-tailed lemurs might be away from home at the moment due to their susceptibility to catching coronavirus, another entertaining creature currently inhabits their enclosure. Known as the standup comic of the zoo, Manusela the salmon-crested cockatoo is sure to become a highlight of your visit. This feathered entertainer will scale up and down the net beside you, bob his head, and engage you in warbled conversation (so feel free to talk gibberish back). Manusela gets his name from Manusela National Park on Seram Island, the one area where the species can be found in the wild.


(Photo courtesy Johanna Hickle)

Peacock

The zoo’s resident peacock has free reign of the outdoor enclosure…so you’ll have to play hide-and-seek to track him down. Fortunately, as a male, he sports colorful blue and green plumage, making him much easier to spot. Scientists have different theories as to what makes a male peacock’s feathers attractive to the ladies of the species. Some say that his colorful displays convince a peahen of his ability to distract predators and draw them away from the nest. Others say that peahens are drawn to the blueberry-like markings of the male’s feathers. What woman doesn’t like a good dinner date?


(Photo courtesy Johanna Hickle)

Rabbits

If you want to find the zoo’s two rabbits, search for them where you’d find them in nature — in a warren-like burrow within a giant bay tree trunk. To avoid becoming a tasty meal, rabbits’ eyes are positioned toward the side of their heads, allowing them the ability to see a nearly perfect 360 degrees around them. Their one blind spot? Right in front of their twitchy button noses.


(Photo courtesy Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo)

Spoonbills

Watching the spoonbills hunting for lunch is also sure to be a hit with the kids. As its name suggests, this funky bird carries a handy-dandy eating utensil on its face wherever it goes. When it’s mealtime, the spoonbill dips its beak into the water and swoops it side to side until it touches an insect, crustacean, or fish — with a backwards snap of its head, it gulps down the freshly caught snack. Bon appetite.


(Photo courtesy Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo)

Flamingos

The animal kingdom has its fair share of dramatic looking species, and flamingos certainly fit the bill with their noodle-like necks and dramatic pink plumage. Did you know that the rich pink hue of their feathers is based off of diet? The more algae, brine shrimp, and mollusks a flamingo consumes, the more vibrant its colors. Make sure to stop by the zoo around feeding time and you’ll even get the chance to hand-feed them yourself!


(Photo courtesy Johanna Hickle)

Loki the Racoon

There’s a good reason the zoo’s one-eyed racoon shares its name with Marvel’s beloved trickster god. Raccoons have a reputation as clever bandits and can use their long dexterous fingers to undo latches, unscrew jars, and open coolers or trash cans to steal snacks. At the turn of the century, scientists attempted to use raccoons in behavioral experiments…but decided rats were much more reliable after the black-masked rascals kept escaping their cages, hiding in air vents, and pickpocketing researchers.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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