Here are five great American zoos you’ll want to explore with your own sense of wonder “” and perhaps your favorite youngsters, too.
By Donna Ikenberry
Keepsakes need a special place in the motorhome, and they collect dust, but you can make a travel collection without buying a thing. My husband and I travel from state to state “collecting” national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, and even state high points. But one of our favorite compilations is our zoo collection. If you have children or grandkids “” and even if you don’t “” you’ll discover an animal wonderland at every zoo along your way.
Zoos are amazing places, not just for the exotic creatures on exhibit, but for the local animal life as well. Native species find zoos a haven, as they offer plenty of food and shelter. Some folks oppose zoos, but these animal sanctuaries let visitors become acquainted with animals they may never see otherwise. Plus, zoos help foster the notion of animal conservation. They often house and breed animals that may be extinct in the wild. For example, the California condor and Arabian oryx have been re-established in wild populations, thanks to zoos.
We’ve found something unusual about almost every zoo we’ve visited, but we have some favorite zoos that I want to share with you. Although there are many fine zoos around the country, some of which we have yet to visit, I’ve written about five of our personal favorites. Read and then enjoy each and every one. Bring the kids and grandkids, or at least your curiosity.
San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, Escondido, California
If an African safari is on your list of things to do, you’ll want to head to this sanctuary. Like a real safari, parents and their children, or grandparents and their grandchildren, can pay an extra fee to camp overnight and truly be immersed in the African world.
You also can visit just for the day, of course. The park is located in the vast San Pasqual Valley, and most of the animals are free to roam in massive enclosures. The Journey Into Africa Tour is but one part of this zoo, and it requires a separate admission fee ($10 per adult and $6 per child ages 3-11). It travels 2 1/2 miles to bring you eye-to-eye with zebras, giraffes, gazelles, rhinoceroses, antelopes, storks, ostriches, vultures, and more. The terrain, rainfall, and temperatures in the San Pasqual Valley are similar to those in the high veldt of East Africa, and the open spaces and similar climate are among the reasons for the park’s tremendous success at raising animals born in captivity.
In addition to expansive habitats, visitors can stroll through Nairobi Village, a place with everything from a petting zoo to bird shows, and rainbow lorikeets and gorillas. The Heart of Africa is another place you’ll want to visit. Here, you’ll enter the animals’ habitat and become completely immersed in their world. Of course, there are physical barriers, but visual barriers are absent. A 3/4-mile path leads past creature-filled waterways, with islands supporting inhabitants, much like in the wild. There are monkeys, flamingos, crowned cranes, secretary birds, ground hornbills, warthogs, bat-eared foxes, and a man-made research station dedicated to the study of African wildlife. Other parts of the park include Condor Ridge, Elephant Overlook, and Lion Camp.
Admission doesn’t include parking, and it’s less expensive to bring your towed car. Parking is $8 for cars and $13 for RVs; it’s a bit lower for zoo members. The zoo is open daily; for more information, call (619) 231-1515 or visit www.sandiegozoo.org/wap.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona
Whenever we’re in the Tucson area, we always make it a point to visit this treasure. A living museum, it’s a combination world-renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden. More than 100 species of mammals and hundreds of bird and reptile species of the Sonoran Desert live here, along with 1,400 different kinds of plants. Although, at 21 acres, it’s the smallest of the zoos mentioned here, it offers almost two miles of trails.
The museum provides a fun and safe way for kids and adults alike to explore the desert. Visitors mosey past desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, javelinas, coatimundi (a mammal related to the raccoon), and so much more. An extensive regional gem, mineral, and fossil collection also is on view.
If you visit between November and April, be sure to check out the raptor free-flight programs. We watched as a group of Harris hawks, a ferruginous hawk, and a common barn owl flew in the desert sky. It’s a great photo opportunity and a wonderful way to really see these birds in action. Other programs offered include a walk with a zookeeper (a special tour in which additional fees apply), and a herpetological (snake) program with an exciting title: “Live & (sort of) On The Loose”!
We hope that after learning about the desert, even those with disdain for it may grow to appreciate it, for it offers a lot to love. Located a few miles west of Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is open every day of the year. Entry fees are a bit lower in the summer months. Parking is plentiful and free. Hours vary by season. For more information, call (520) 883-2702 or visit www.desertmuseum.org.
Minnesota Zoo, Apple Valley, Minnesota
The Minnesota Zoo is one of our all-time favorite zoos, for one simple reason: it displays many North American animals. And as lovers of the land, we think it’s important for children and adults to learn about critters found on our continent.
A stroll with your youngsters along the zoo’s Northern Trail offers views of winter-hardy animals such as moose, musk oxen, wolves, caribou, and pronghorn antelopes, all North American species. Exotic species such as the Amur tiger from Siberia are also on exhibit. The tiger exhibit was one of the best we’ve seen, with lush vegetation and ample room for the big cats to roam. We also found the Sichuan takin, a large, hooved mammal closely related to the musk ox. This Chinese national treasure can tolerate cold winters, too.
The zoo consists of 500 rolling, wooded acres with more than 2,000 animals representing 400-plus species. Two other trails, the Minnesota Trail and the Tropics Trail, shouldn’t be missed. The recently renovated Minnesota Trail exhibits a wealth of native animals, including exhibits of raccoons, coyotes, and gray wolves, as well as beavers, otters, pumas, and lynxes. Walk indoors along the Tropics Trail and you’ll see free-flying birds and exotic plants in a rain forest setting. Discovery Bay, with dolphins, sharks, rays, and other marine animals as the main attractions, is also located indoors. If you visit in summer, don’t miss the bird show, complete with eagles and talking parrots.
The Minnesota Zoo is located in Apple Valley, only 20 miles south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Keep it in mind as a stop while you’re on the way to or from FMCA’s 2008 summer convention in St. Paul. The facility is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, call (800) 366-7811 or visit www.mnzoo.org. Parking is $15 for RVs but only $5 for automobiles, so you may wish to arrive in a towed car.
Columbus Zoo And Aquarium, Columbus, Ohio
My husband and I are definitely impressed with what we always think of as “Jack Hanna’s zoo.” In addition to many exotic species such as gorillas, elephants, and rhinos, we also found plenty of North American species at this zoo, including moose. Moose are among my favorite animals, so a zoo can never have too many!
Today’s zookeepers know that caring for animals also means providing enrichment. They no longer simply pour out a pile of food into the animal’s compound; they hide some to let the creature forage, just as it would in the wild. We visited around Halloween, so there were pumpkins for some of the animals to play with and eat. Other forms of enrichment include adding scents, such as spices, perfumes, extracts, or animal scents, to the environment; changing sounds, such as playing a recording of another animal’s vocalizations; adding appropriate toys; and mixing the variety of foods available.
Family members of all ages will enjoy the zoo’s aquarium, Discovery Reef. This 110,000-gallon saltwater aquarium features wave-producing equipment and more than 1,200 pieces of man-made coral. The Tidepool Touch Tank enables visitors to touch sea stars, horseshoe crabs, and other creatures. Plus, a 9,000-gallon semicircular pool for Humboldt penguins reveals the birds’ antics, both in and out of the water.
Gorillas are found in the African Forest themed area, and orangutans in the Islands of Southeast Asia exhibit. Visitors also can learn about Mexican wolves. The Columbus Zoo is one of 32 facilities in the United States and Mexico that helps maintain a captive breeding population of the wolves, an endangered species.
Open daily, the zoo is located on the northwest edge of town off Riverside Drive. Parking is $5 for all vehicles, including RVs. Seniors gain admission for only $4 on Tuesdays. For more information, call (614) 645-3400 or visit www.colszoo.org.
Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, Nebraska
The phrase “must see” is definitely overused, but it truly applies to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. We go there every year as we travel between Colorado and Michigan.
The zoo’s Desert Dome is the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome, and beneath it is Kingdom of the Nights, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit. This exhibit has canyons, caves, and the world’s largest indoor swamp, with more than 1,000 bats and 30 swamp animals, including freshwater crocodiles.
You can’t miss the world’s largest rain forest exhibit, Lied Jungle. It is 80 feet tall, covers 1.5 acres, and harbors three different rain forest habitats, with creatures and plants from Asia, Africa, and South America.
The Scott Kingdoms of the Seas Aquarium harbors Antarctic penguins, including king penguins, the second-largest penguin species in the world. A snow-filled exhibit keeps the sub-Antarctic penguins, such as rockhoppers and gentoos, comfortable at 36 degrees. In the summertime, outdoor exhibits house little blue penguins native to Australia and New Zealand, and African black-footed penguins. One of the newest exhibits is the Hubbard Orangutan Forest, built at a cost of $8.5 million. And at Hubbard Gorilla Valley, the gorillas run free and the visitors are captive!
The zoo is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Parking is free. For more information, call (402) 733-8400 or visit www.omahazoo.com.
Chances are you’re probably not too far from a great zoo right now. Or, one is on the way as you travel. Take the kids, grandkids, your partner, or just yourself, and start on a zoo adventure of your own!