Pana’ewa Zoo and Gardens: A Rainforest Gem

Zoo people are a very particular breed. While I might moonlight as a copywriter and macramé artist, my day job is at a zoo. I spend at least five days a week at the zoo. Which means, of course, when I go on vacation, I seek out other zoos at which to spend my time. My latest trip to Hilo, HI was no exception.

The Pana’ewa Zoo and Gardens is a lovely zoo that sits on 12-acres of land about 6 miles from downtown Hilo. The zoo is home to about 200 animals, including tigers, lemurs, parrots, and spider monkeys.

The zoo was first established in 1968 and stood on a small, two-acre plot of land near Onekahakaha Beach Park. Despite its small size, it was a very popular local destination. In 1978, the zoo moved to the current location outside the Pana’ewa Forest Reserve. It’s location makes it the only tropical rainforest zoo in the United States. It sits at an elevation of 380 feet and gets over 125 inches of rain a year. So, when you visit, be sure to bring a rain layer!

We were lucky with a gorgeous, sunny day.

When the zoo moved to its Pana’ewa location, it built a botanical garden in addition to the expanded animal enclosures. As you meander about the zoo, you can enjoy a variety of tropical vireya rhododendrons, bamboo, orchids, over 100 species of palms, and even a corpse flower. While the corpse flower was not blooming during my visit, I was told that it does indeed smell like a pungent, rotting corpse.

The zoo experience at the Pana’ewa Zoo is lovely. There are carved animal benches scattered along the walkways and gorgeous murals on the buildings. Combined with the large, butterfly statue for kids to climb on, there is a lovely sense of whimsy in the park.

Plant and animal shaped benches line the walkways.
Murals depicting natural environments are on every building.

The Pana’ewa Zoo is a free experience, but I highly recommend dropping a donation in the donation box in the gift shop to help support the zoo. The zoo is owned and operated by the County of Hawaii and is promoted by the Friends of Pana’ewa Zoo (FOZ) organization.

‘Alalā picture from the Pana’ewa Zoo website.
I, of course, could not resist a little ‘alalā to take home.

The Pana’ewa Zoo has a great education program, focused on conservation. While the zoo does not have any large-scale, global conservation projects, they have smaller, animal ambassador programs that help connect the local community to large, wildlife conservation issues. Just last year, the Pana’ewa Zoo welcomed ‘alalā birds, endemic Hawaiian crows that are now extinct in the wild. The birds, Pano Pau and Loli‘ana, came from the  ‘Alalā Project, managed by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. These two birds act as animal ambassadors for the project, bringing awareness to the birds’ plight as well as the conservation efforts out of San Diego. The Pana’ewa Zoo is currently housing the birds in a temporary aviary while their new aviary is being built. You can support that project here.

Unlike most zoos I visit, the Pana’ewa Zoo is unaccredited. As I discussed previously, zoo and aquarium accreditations provide third party oversight to maintain conservation efforts, animal enrichment, education programs, and animal management and care. Only a small percentage of zoos and aquariums in the United States are accredited by third party organizations. You’ll usually find private accreditation in larger, conservation-focused institutions. Third party accreditation has no bearing on compliance with federal standards for animal care, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act.

These accreditation programs are important in maintaining high standards for animal care, preventing roadside attractions like those seen in the recently popular Netflix series, Tiger King. However, different accreditation programs hold the institutions to different standards of care, which can be confusing and send mixed messages to the actual welfare standards of the institution. Given that the Pana’ewa Zoo is an unaccredited institution, how can we know the standards of care for the animals?

The American alligator had a nice pool and pull-outs that wouldn’t get too hot.
The two tigers at the zoo had an acre enclosure, complete with swimming pools, hiding spots, and lush foliage.

It’s hard for the public to fully understand the care zoo animals receive without having the necessary background and access to off-exhibit areas. However, when I visited the zoo, all of the animals appeared healthy and happy. They had ample space in their enclosures and there was proper distance between visitors and animals. The Pana’ewa Zoo has continued to update and improve all of their animals enclosures.

I also observed voluntary animal behaviors. Animal keepers would ask their animals to display certain behaviors, but would not force the animals to perform, as often seen in animal shows. The keepers utilized positive reinforcement, praising the animal for desired behaviors rather than punishing them for undesired behaviors.

Take my observations with a grain of salt. While I work at a zoo, I do not work in animal care, so my expertise is limited. The animals all appeared to be properly cared for and healthy on my visit. That said, I would love to see the Pana’ewa Zoo pursue private accreditation. I understand that accreditation can be cost prohibitive for many small institutions, especially one that is free to the public and dependent on city funding and private donations. As Pam Mizuno wrote in an email in 2018:

“Accreditation is very costly and would involve infrastructure and additional staff,” states Mizuno of Panaʻewa Recreational Complex in an email to Ke Kalahea. “Without additional financial support, we are unable to pursue accreditation.”

“The question is how cost effective is it to pursue? Have you reviewed the accreditation requirements? There is no requirement for our zoo to be accredited to participate in some of the AZA programs,” Mizuno continues. “I maintain professional membership in both AZA and ZAA which allows me to keep up with information and news regarding their organizations and other zoos.”

Would I recommend visiting the Pana’ewa Zoo and Gardens despite a lack of accreditation? At this point, warily, yes. My visits would be contingent on continued animal care and transparency on the part of the zoo.

The Pana’ewa Zoo and Gardens is a lovely, small, community-minded zoo. The animals all appeared happy and healthy, the grounds were clean, and it was lovely spending time among the gardens. I look forward to seeing how the zoo continues to grow and develop. I’ll swing by and say hi on my next trip to the Hilo.

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