Private and Public Policy Reviews for the Disabled

The Oregon Zoo Revisited

By Stephen Rex Goode, BSW

A few years ago, I reviewed the Oregon Zoo. Many things have changed since then, so I offer an update.


The Oregon Zoo is in Portland, Oregon in the hills over downtown in beautiful Washington Park. Washington Park is 130 acres of beautiful trees, valleys, streams, gardens, arboretums, and paths located withing walking distance of skyscrapers and the apartments. Due to the zoo’s location, the terrain inside the zoo is hilly.


After standing in line at the ticket booths, you move into an area where there are shops, lockers, restrooms, and the mountain goat exhibit. In one of the shops, you can rent a scooter for $25 for the day. You’ll need a credit card or leave your identification with them. The scooter is relatively powerful. I weigh nearly 400 pounds and rode it most of the way through the zoo without it slowing down much. They also have wheelchairs for $6, but you’ll need someone strong to push you.

I am partially ambulatory, which means that I’m fairly good at walking short distances. I usually don’t even rent a personal mobility device. It depends on how I’m feeling that day. There are enough places in the zoo for me to find a place to sit for a minute or two and let my pain subside. On busy days, the entrance can be a problem for me. There are two entrances—one where you buy your ticket and later when they take your ticket. At both of these places, when there is a long line, I can develop enough problems in my back that I can ruin the rest of the trip just standing in line.

On the day I took notes for this update, I did not rent a scooter as I had done in 2008. With the scooter, I was able to visit all of the exhibits, but there were four kinds of impediments:

  1. Narrow passages – Some parts of the trails were narrow, making it difficult to maneuver the kinds of scooters they rent.
  2. Unfinished passages – There were a couple of dirt and gravel sections. The scooter navigated them fine, but I imagined it would be more difficult for a wheelchair.
  3. Steepness – Well, you can’t expect them to excavate the entire zoo to be one level. Part of Oregon’s beauty is the unevenness of its terrain. Still, it is very difficult to push a wheelchair up some of the inclines. Scooters low on power will be hopeless.
  4. Clueless human obstacles – I don’t know if they’re clueless or just stubborn. Many people will stand right in front of you, even facing you, and expect you to go around. This is not, of course, the zoo’s fault, but on extremely crowded days it can be very discouraging. This is especially true when there are school field trips in the zoo.

The zoo provides a service known as The Zoomer. It’s a golf-cart-like, electrically-powered vehicle that can hold people and wheelchairs hung on the back. If you can’t get out of your wheelchair, this won’t help you much, but it’s a nice service. There are several stops around the zoo where you can sit and wait for one to come by, or with a cell phone you can call for it. The number is on the zoo map you get when you enter. They give people rides, no questions asked.

The Zoomer cannot go everywhere in the zoo. As I said, some of the trails are barely wide enough for personal mobility devices. If you are like me and can walk a little, you can get down into one of the areas where the zoomer can’t go and then find yourself in pain and still have to get back to a place where the Zoomer can reach you.

On this most recent visit, we found ourselves near the somewhat new lion exhibit when we realized our decision to not rent a scooter was ill-conceived. Our knees and backs hurt and we wanted a ride. We went to the nearby gift shop and asked the attendant to call for the Zoomer. He made the call but before they arrived, he was relieved by another zoo employee. We asked the replacement to call again. He said that the Zoomer was on its way, but couldn’t make it down to his area. We would have to walk back up to the Orangutan exhibit which was not close. When the driver arrived, he told us that the shop keeper was misinformed and he could have picked us up near the lions.

The Great Northwest

There are two entrances to this  section of the zoo. Go down below this entrance area and you pass through the ticket takers. After this, to the left through The Great Northwest you can see some of the northwest’s animals: river otters, beavers, eagles, fish, cougars, and some bears. The Great Northwest section includes a new California Condor exhibit. Some of the old gravel and sawdust trails have been paved over, improving access for mobility devices. Many of the trails in this section are fairly narrow and difficult to navigate in the scooter and I imagine, a wheelchair. I went on a busy day and got crowded in around my scooter by people and didn’t know how I was going to get out. A lot of people seem to resent a person in a scooter or completely ignore them.

Pacific Shores

There are two ways to get to this exhibit from the entrance. One is to go through The Great Northwest and the other is to go down a long and laborious hill. Either way, it’s going to be difficult for a wheelchair returning back to the top. Take the Zoomer.

This exhibit is a beautiful aquarium-like structure that houses some kinds of fish, sea otters, and sea lions. You can see them from above the surface of the water or from below. They’ve accommodated for personal mobility devices for both.

Trillium Creek Family Farm

This area has a family farm motif with chickens and various species of goat. There are rabbits and a tractor. The ground here is dirt with a bit of gravel, so some mobility devices may have trouble with it. You can go into a goat pen when invited to pet some of the goats, although the gate may be difficult to get some devices into.

Elk Meadows

Elk Meadows is gone to make room for a larger facility for elephants. It is still under construction.


The bear exhibits are all ramped with places to park a chair or scooter.


The primate exhibits are all level. The doors have buttons to open them.


At the present time, the zoo is under a lot of construction for a larger facility of elephants. It has rendered visiting the elephants a bit of a challenge.


The penguin exhibit has a ramp down into it with a buttoned door, but the interior can be a little cramped.


There is an aviary with lots of birds to see and a concrete path through it. It can be a little narrow. The doors have buttons. There are two doors to pass through as a precaution to keep the birds from escaping.


A concrete path winds around through the Africa Savannah exhibits where you can see rhinos, hippos, giraffes, gazelles, and storks. The path is adequate. Near the giraffes is an exhibit where you can see naked mole rats and other rodents. There is a button on the door.

The part of the Africa exhibit that is difficult is where you can see bats, some kinds of primates, and reptiles. The path is narrow with sharp turns. On a busy day, it is almost not navigable.

A relatively new part of the Africa exhibit is the lion enclosure and a building from which you can view African wild dogs and other animals.

Insect Zoo

This small building houses a lot of interesting insects, some you can get up close to. There’s a platform that you can’t get a scooter onto, but they will bring some of the insects to you, weather and staffing permitting.

Lorikeet Landing

This is a delightful exhibit. You can purchase a small paper cup full of nectar and enter the exhibit. Birds will land on you and eat from the cup. They’ll also leave droppings on you if you’re not careful. They no longer allow mobility devices. The gates are doubled to prevent escaping birds.


The amphitheater is still there, but the stage has been torn down.

Big Cats

The tigers and leopards have an area of their own.


There is a cafe with lots of spendy food. You can get to it in a wheelchair or scooter, but as with most things here, it’s a daunting task on busy days.


At this time, the railway is closed.


The Oregon Zoo has made a valiant effort at accessibility. Below are some of the points I made previously and their current status.

  1. Widen some of the trails. Have an employee navigate the whole place in a wheelchair and in a scooter. You can’t decide these things without putting yourself in the place of the disabled person.
  2. Make a concrete path through the Trillium Creek Family Farm. This has been accomplished as part of the California Condor exhibit.
  3. Nothing can be done about the steepness. It’s Oregon. The Zoomer is a good thing, but sometimes it has a hard time getting around all of the people. I knew I would not be able to get up to the top. The neuropathy in my feet was causing my problems and my arthritic back had been taxed to its limit.I suggest that there be some kind of phone at the places where the Zoomer looks for people so I can call for it.
  4. For people like me, standing in line for tickets is a real problem. Make them available online.
  5. Add more disabled parking spaces.  This one was addressed but I am not happy with the outcome. The parking lot is now part of the City of Portland’s park system and everyone pays, even people with disabled parking permits. (See Systemic Discrimination.)
  6. (New) When you do construction, why is it that you take things away from disabled people? There are long stretches of tarped fences to separate the construction areas from the view of visitors. Unfortunately, to make room for them, all of the benches that were there for people weary of body have been removed. While waiting for the Zoomer, we had to walk back to the base of the AfriCafe and wait there on hard, flat cafe chairs.


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