Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

by Stasia Lopez /
Stasia Lopez's picture
Aug 20, 2014 / 0 comments

Each summer, countless visitors across the country enjoy taking their families to zoos and aquariums all across the United States. There’s something about watching wild animals that’s captivating. There’s a level of curiosity that entrances both children and adults as they view the animals in a habitat where they can get up close and personal and learn more about them.

I grew up in Pittsburgh but haven’t lived in the area in over five years. I hadn’t been to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium since I was five or six years old with my parents and sister in the early ‘90s. I vaguely remember going to the zoo as a child; I do remember a few details of that day that included the zoo tram being like a train and it had a whistle that sounded at the multiple stops that it traveled; or the fact that it was raining that day and my parents bought both my sister and I an animal from the gift shop before we left. My memory of the experience was cloudy at best and I definitely needed a refresher because I’m sure that the zoo had changed greatly in the 20+ years from my first experience.

So when I took a week off from work in late July for vacation, my husband and I decided to make it a ‘’staycation’’ instead of going to the beach or another destination. It was my husband, Fernando’s idea and personal request that we visit the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium and we were both very excited. It was a sunny, hot summer day and we could not have asked for nicer weather. We also took my 13 year old brother, John, since he had never been to the zoo, either.


Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


After we parked and checked in at gate #5, we were given a helpful map which displayed all the different featured areas, including: an African Savanna, an Asian Forest, a Kids Kingdom, a Tropical Forest, Bears, Water’s Edge, and the PPG Aquarium. Home to thousands of animals representing over 400 species (including 22 threatened or endangered species), the Pittsburgh Zoo displayed many exhibits of animals from all seven continents.
As we walked in, the first animals we saw were two tigers playing with each other. They were Amur Tigers, which are also known as the Siberian, Manchurian, Altaic, Korean, North China, or Ussuri Tigers. Both had vibrant orange and black coats. These tigers can literally live in any climate, although they are native to Asia. Like all felines, they are instinctual hunters and tigers especially enjoy eating deer, antelope, wild cattle, and pigs. The males range between eight and 10.5 feet long and weigh up to 675 pounds and the females around eight feel long and up to 350 pounds. An interesting fact about tigers that we learned is their stripes are not identical to other tigers. Much like a human’s fingerprint, a tiger’s stripes are absolutely unique. Amur tigers are endangered; there used to be eight subspecies and now there are only five subspecies left. Because of survival programs encouraging reproduction of these impressive animals, there are now an estimated 400 tigers left (and hopefully growing!). We sat in awe for a good 30 minutes watching them play and walk around their habitat before moving on to the sunbathing Komodo Dragon.


Amur Tiger. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


The Komodo Dragon is the largest venomous lizard on the planet. They can grow upwards of 8.5 feet long and weigh around 200 pounds. Native to Indonesia, they are considered a threatened animal species with approximately 5,000 left in the world. Their gigantic tails can swing a deadly blow to its prey which consists of pigs, goats, buffalo, horses, rats, and birds. What’s more deadly is its bite, which delivers a potent bacteria into its victim’s body…leaving a fatal end.


Komodo Dragon. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


As we continued walking, we entered the African Savanna and were welcomed by the calm, pink, shellfish-eating flamingos before turning our attention to the African Lion. We saw a female lioness sitting in the shade. We couldn’t view where the male lion(s) were at all and my brother was hoping to hear a majestic roar from somewhere announcing its arrival. An interesting fact about lions: their roar can be heard as far as five miles away! Lions are also the only cat species to live in groups, called prides. These massive cats, native to the grassland and savannas of Africa, can reach up to 10 feet long and a staggering 500 pounds (for males) and eight feet long and 350 pounds (for females).


Lioness. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


My husband Fernando’s favorite animal is the elephant, and the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium even has the Saba Elephant Reserve, which teaches about life cycles, threats, and conservation of these animals. We saw from a distance three elephants with their backs facing toward us (one being a baby elephant!) and two giraffes. There was a waterhole in the front and plenty of open space around for the elephants to roam. It really did look like something out of an African Savanna with lots of lush plants and shrubs everywhere. We later went inside a very large building that housed even more elephants. We just couldn’t take our eyes away from these gigantic yet relaxed creatures. They were eating hay and moving slowly, and seemed so calm and peaceful. The fastest thing moving on them was their trunks as they swung back and forth. Fernando reminisced about visiting a zoo as a young child in Mexico and how he loved to feed the elephants peanuts. He described how their soft noses would survey his hands for the crunchy, salty treat and he’d feel a cool, draft of air as their large ears flapped continuously.


Elephants. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


After an enjoyable siesta watching the elephants, we soon passed a large, open, grassy area with a herd of Springbok, grazing. They resemble a deer or elk and are extremely fast, gaining speeds of up to 60 mph. We also spotted an Ostrich just sitting very docilely and looking completely disinterested in the springboks’ company. My brother was really amused by the ostrich’s long, narrow necks paired with their round, gray-feathered bodies. It made sense to all of us that an ostrich is unable to fly, although we all tried to imagine it.


Ostrich and springbok. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


Making sure we had time to view all the animals and the aquarium, we had to continue on. Our map led us to the Tropical Forest, which encompassed the globe from the Amazon to Madagascar. Here, we viewed many tropical plants and primates. Many playful monkeys and lemurs glided from tree branch to tree branch effortlessly. Some seemed to be putting on a show for us as they displayed their acrobatic talents for us. Of all the animals that we saw, the monkeys seemed the most open to display affection and weren’t shy about being animated about something. They weren’t afraid to use their voice to express emotion or communicate. They were so active it was hard to imagine if these curious primates ever slept!
We were truly entertained and you could tell the monkeys drew a crowd and they loved it. They were just as curious about all of us as we were of them and it was exciting to watch. We made our way outside and saw what looked like a family of gorillas, another endangered animal housed here at the Pittsburgh Zoo. There was a baby there that kept twirling around but then went and hid behind a tree stump with its parents. It was so unexpected to see such a tiny baby gorilla there, and it was enjoyable to watch them interact. Like the other monkeys we saw, they were very expressive, using their entire bodies to communicate, from posture, facial expressions, chest beating, and other forms of communication. We watched them eat leaves and then decided that we were pretty hungry too.


Gorilla, eating. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


We made our way to the Safari Plaza for some lunch. The Safari Grill had pizza, chicken tenders, fries, burgers, various sandwiches and wraps, salads, parfaits, and fruit as well as cookies. None of the drinks came with lids; this was put into place to protect the animals from eating any litter from any waste. It was a very hot day and we definitely felt refreshed as we had a place to sit down and rest our feet while we ate. The tram wasn’t working that day, so we had to peruse the entire zoo by foot. Once we were all watered, fed, and rested, we continued on to the oldest exhibit at the zoo—the Bears exhibit. The bears we saw were sleeping, so we made our way over to Water’s Edge, which featured playful sea otters, polar bears, and sand tiger sharks. We didn’t see any polar bears, but we did see two divers cleaning the inside of the shark tank. They waved at us and were completely relaxed despite these big sharks lurking behind them.


Shark! From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


Soon we were feeling very hot again and saw an entrance into the aquarium. It was air-conditioned and we felt cooler, probably psychologically, from just seeing so much water around us. There were endless amounts of tropical freshwater fish, sharks and fish from warm and temperate seas, fish that lived in underwater caves, electric eels, giant octopus, pot-bellied seahorses, three different kinds of penguins, stingrays, turtles, and spiny lobsters. The PPG Aquarium features a diverse array of aquatic species from every conceivable watery habitat.  From the vast oceans to even the streams and rivers of Pennsylvania, there were all kinds of aquatic creatures to view. The penguins easily drew a crowd as several zoo workers were feeding them, while a few others were swimming or floating in the water.

The wonderful thing about zoos is their ability to help preserve and protect so many species of animals through survival programs and conservation efforts. These very wild animals live much longer in captivity and zoos also help these beautiful beings with reproduction as well, to help to grow their population.


Leopard. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium


It’s always exciting when a zoo makes an announcement that there’s a baby on the way! Zoos across the world take part in these two very important aspects of protection and preservation as well as reproduction, especially for the animals that are considered threatened or endangered. In the 1940s, for example, there were as little as 24 tigers left and they were seriously endangered. Poachers across the world have been a threat to many wild animals, such as elephants and rhinos.  Zoos are not just places to showcase wild animals from near and far—they are filled with people who deeply care about the well-being and future of the animals.

A wonderful example of this is The International Conservation Center (ICC), which is located on 724 acres in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. It is North America’s premier conservation, research, education, and training facility, specializing in the care and breeding of African elephants. It is the only center of its kind affiliated with an AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)-accredited institution in the United States. It is the culmination of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s vision for the highest level of care for the endangered species who reside there. The Pittsburgh Zoo even has something called the Pittsburgh myActions Community, which anyone can join and make a monetary contribution which goes to help protect the planet and save wildlife.


The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium first opened its doors to the public back in June 1898, and it’s still continuing to grow, with many new featured exhibits, educational programs, conservation projects, and hosting all-year round events. The ZooBrew: Oktoberfest for example, is a special event that’ll be held on September 12, 2014 from 6-9:30pm (and $60/pp) featuring an evening of food, music, and craft beer. The event is completely sold out! The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium holds many year round events (just check their webpage—see below)


You can become a member of the Pittsburgh Zoo and enjoy unlimited visits and benefits (see rates and benefits online at The zoo also features many on-site programs and classes for all age groups, including teens and adults. It’s pretty common for many local Preschool and K-12 schools to plan daytrips and behind the scenes tours to the zoo with their students, and many college students can even find internships and volunteer opportunities in a range of different areas across a range of disciplines! Additionally, the zoo also features overnight stays where families and Scout troops (for example) can extend the fun and learning  of the animal kingdom in exciting ways. To learn more about this opportunity you can contact the Education Reservations Department at 412-365-2528 or learn[at]


The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is open 362 days of the year, only closing on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The operating hours of the zoo are also different based on the four seasons. In the summer (May 24-September 1st)—they’re open 9:30am-6pm; Fall (September 2-December 31st)—they’re open 9am-5pm; Winter (January 2nd-March 31st)—they’re open 9am-4pm; and Spring (April 1st-May 23rd)—they’re open 9am-5pm.

Current rates (April 1st-November 30th):
Adults: $15
Seniors (60+ years): $14
Children (2-13): $13
Children under 24 months-Free
Parking is also Free


I completely recommend this amazing zoo and all that it has to offer year-round! The zoo’s many educational offerings, conservation efforts, and events make it a truly engaging experience, no matter what time of year you visit. For more information, check out their webpage at or call 412-665-3640.



Learn more about Pittsburgh in our Exploring Pittsburgh Series.



Tortoise. From Conservation and Education at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium




Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando.


All photos courtesy and copyright Stasia Lopez



Note: We received media passes from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium - thank you!