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Magazine: Tampa zoo tops for kids

More than 15 years ago, a group named Lowry Park Zoo one of the nation's worst. Now the zoo outranks San Diego's attraction.

Published May 5, 2004

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Although the stingray exhibit is her favorite, 5-year-old Michaela Bertic of Wesley Chapel enjoys brushing the goats in the petting area of the Wallaroo Station, a 4.5-acre Australian-themed family area, at Lowry Park Zoo. The zoo has been named No. 1 in the nation for kids by Child magazine. Lowry Park competed against more than 150 institutions.

TAMPA - Lowry Park Zoo's commitment to safety and attention to hands-on animal exhibits helped the 56-acre zoo become Child magazine's "No. 1 Zoo in the United States for Kids," the magazine announced Tuesday.

More than 15 years ago, Lowry Park made a different Top 10 list when a national Humane Society official dubbed it one of the 10 worst zoos in America.

"It was a completely different zoo (then)," said Heather Sitton, spokeswoman for Lowry Park. "This is a great opportunity to show the Tampa Bay community what an invaluable community resource we've become."

Lowry Park competed against more than 150 institutions that belong to the American Zoo & Aquarium Association for the distinction. Child magazine conducted a five-month investigation of the institutions, surveying the number and quality of exhibits, presence of a children's zoo, educational programs for school trips and summer vacations, animal care, convenience, and safety, among other things.

Child magazine, based in New York City, reports on children's and parenting trends with a national circulation of more than 1-million, said Karen Cicero, senior editor.

As the second-smallest zoo on Child's Top 10 zoos list, Lowry Park beat out better-known parks such as the San Diego Zoo, which ranked No. 2.

Other zoos on the list included: Oklahoma City Zoological Park & Botanical Garden at No. 3, Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., at No. 4, Phoenix Zoo at No. 5, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden at No. 6, Bronx Zoo at No. 7, Toledo Zoo at No. 8, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo at No. 9, and Columbus Zoo & Aquarium at No. 10.

This is the first time Child magazine has done a Top 10 list for zoos, Cicero said. In previous years, the magazine has released lists of the best children's museums, best children's hospitals and best states to raise babies.

Lowry Park was named in 1925 in honor of Dr. Sumter L. Lowry, a city commissioner, who persuaded the city to purchase property for a public park in 1918. Tampa's zoo began as an animal shelter in Plant Park in 1937. It moved to Lowry Park in the 1950s.

By the late 1980s, city of Tampa officials considered Lowry Park outdated, poorly maintained and out of style. Paint peeled at the park. No one wanted to see the caged animals, and attendance declined. The zoo faced extinction.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez called for a committee to overhaul the zoo and redevelop the park. With a $20-million investment, a redesigned Lowry Park opened its doors in March 1988. Today, the park has more than 1,600 animals and 760,000 visitors a year, Sitton said.

"The changes and improvements we've made over the years and the natural animal exhibits people can come see are really making a difference in the local community," Sitton said.

Attractions that set Lowry Park apart include Wallaroo Station, a 4.5-acre Australian-themed family area, and interactive exhibits where children can feed and ride camels, and pet and feed kangaroos and stingrays.

Cicero said she was impressed that the park practices escaped animal drills twice a month. "The most of our survey," the magazine notes in its article.

On May 28, the zoo will open its largest exhibit ever, a 5.6-acre "Safari Africa," featuring elephants to ride, zebras and warthogs.

The June/July 2004 issue of Child showcasing all 10 zoos hits newsstands nationwide May 18.

- Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or

[Last modified May 5, 2004, 01:00:41]

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