Founded in 1978 and located just 2.5 miles from Hilo off State Highway 11, the 12-acre Panaewa Rainforest Zoo and Gardens is the United States' only natural tropical rainforest zoo. It receives some 125 inches of rain per year on average, which makes it an ideal environment for more than 100 varieties of palm trees, dozens of exotic plants, and some 80 different animal species.
Among residents popular at the zoo are Max the 20-year-old Catalina Macaw, Igorina the Turkey Vulture, and two kinkajous named Lilo and Stitch. A pair of Cotton-top Tamarins, "Opus'' and "Cousteau,'' were added to the zoo in 2008, along with a 52-pound alligator snapping turtle called, affectionately, "Ms. Wilson.''
Among imported mammals, there are Axis Deer native to India and Sri Lanka, Binturongs from Southeast Asia, and playful brown-nosed Coatis from South America. Two-toed sloths, feral pigs, variegated tropical squirrels, giant anteaters, and feral goats can also be observed.
The star of the zoo, however, is Namaste. He is a highly photogenic white Bengal Tiger, who was born on September 30, 1998 and hand-raised in Las Vegas before being donated to the zoo by magician Dirk Arthur. Namaste arrived in Hilo on April 16, 1999.
The big cat currently weighs 500 pounds. Namaste's feeding time is 3:30pm, and each day he consumes three whole chickens and ten pounds of meat, plus ground bone and vitamins. He can often be seen in the morning patrolling the compound or playing in the water with his toys. He also enjoys basking in the sun, posing regally, and stalking his neighbor, Arnie, the water buffalo, who occupies the enclosure next door.
For those who want to get closer to the animals, a petting zoo is open to the public each Saturday from 1:30pm to 2:30pm. It features ponies, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, and other small animals that can be handled under the watchful eye of zoo attendants.
Strolling the Gardens of the zoo can be quite relaxing, too. Peacocks can be seen strutting among the orchids, clumping bamboos and tropical rhododendrons. There are blooms by the dozens throughout the year, from water lilies and poinsettia to colorful bougainvillea and local hibiscus. Tulip trees, banyans, guava, ohi'a and breadfruit are just a few of the many trees creating a lush tropical backdrop here.
At the Zoo's gift shop, a number of items bearing the likeness of Namaste can be purchased, including t-shirts, caps, totes and plush toys. There are books, puzzles and games of an educational nature, calendars, photos, magnets, and stickers available, too. For toddlers, "Keiki Kar'' strollers can be rented here as well.
The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo is located on the outskirts of town at Mamaki Street, Hilo, Hawaii 96720. It is open daily from 9am to 4pm, except Christmas and New Year's Day, and admission is free of charge for all visitors. To get there from Hilo, take State Highway 11 (the Hawaii Belt Road) south toward Volcano. Two and a half miles past the Prince Kuhio Shopping Plaza, look for the large ZOO sign on a lava rock wall, just after Kulani 19. Turn right onto Mamaki. The zoo is about one mile off the highway.