Go nose-to-nose with bears at Brookfield Zoo’s new exhibit

Brookfield Zoo’s newest attraction, Great Bear Wilderness, evokes a National Park-like experience from the moment visitors approach the 7 ½-acre exhibit on the West Mall, where they are practically walking with the bison.

Watching them run across their grazing fields or stare down at you from atop their bridge makes a much more powerful impact than their old enclosure.

Video by Liz Hoffman

Photos by Jason Geil

Plus, the zoo has added two 1-year-old bison, amping up the herd’s energy level. Like all of the animals in the exhibit, the bison can be seen from multiple viewing areas, including some windows that allow lucky visitors to go almost eye-to-eye with these great beasts.

The “eye-to-eye” nature of the exhibit’s design is actually its most exciting feature, especially when you come to the grand attraction, the bears. You can view grizzlies and polar bears from both indoors and out. Stand a couple feet away to watch them through eye-level openings or go inside to watch them swim and play through windows. Keepers can rotate the bears among three separate habitats, giving the bears ample opportunities to explore and play in different environments.

They also really seem to enjoy interacting with visitors. Inside, we watched a grizzly paw at people’s noses through the viewing glass as he tumbled through the water. Outside, we watched a polar bear training session through a giant window. As my sons approached the glass at the end of the session the bear jumped at the window, showing off his great height and reminding my children that he’s a wild creature, not a playful puppy.

Great Bear Wilderness provides a new habitat area for the zoo’s bald eagle as well as a new raven. The popular “Wolf Woods” have also been incorporated into the exhibit. What holds all of this together is the iconic nature of all these North American animals. As part of the journey, visitors will come across beautiful graphics explaining the symbolism of these animals, along with information about habitats and conservation efforts. My sons loved jumping among the painted “ice flows” when viewing the polar bears. It’s an obvious teachable moment, but since much of the exhibit is dedicated to conservation, including frequent “You Can Help” messages, it makes a lot of sense.

Great Bear Wilderness is free with zoo admission. The zoo is open every day of the year.

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