Zoos around the country are packed during the summer months with families on a quest to satisfy their curiosity about animals.
Joseph A. Buckhalt, Ph.D., Professor of Counseling Psychology and School Psychology at Auburn University, says summer is a perfect opportunity for parents and children to learn together through family adventures. “Any kind of summer experience, grand or small, can be made fun and educational,” Buckhalt says. “We have found that activities where both parents and children learn new things are most rewarding and productive.”
Buckhalt suggests that parents find age-appropriate books for their children before taking a family field trip. Reading books about animals before a visit to a zoo can help to make the experience more meaningful for children. Whether you’re planning a cross-county trip to visit a zoo or a Saturday morning trek to your local zoo, the experience is bound to be exciting, educational, and filled with memories in the making. Just don’t forget to stop at the public library before you head out.
A few of the best zoos from around the country are highlighted below. The zoos range in size and price; each zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida
This zoo is home to more than 1,500 rare and exotic animals. In the process of becoming officially recognized as a botanical garden, the 89-acre Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens boasts more than 1,000 varieties of plants. The zoo is moderately priced at $12 for adults and $7.50 for children and has recently added a water park, a hands-on stingray exhibit, and a giraffe overlook. Interactive educational programs include after-dark programs, home-school programs, day camps, preschool programs, and behind-the-scenes programs. Families living in Northeast Florida can take advantage of the annual family membership package ($85 for a family of six), which also allows families discounted rates at many AZA accredited zoos around the United States and Canada.
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, Illinois
This zoo is free to visitors, located just minutes from downtown Chicago, and is one of the nation’s oldest zoos. The Lincoln Park Zoo began in 1868 with a pair of swans and today has more than 1,100 mammals, reptiles, and birds. The zoo is located on 35 lakefront acres and attracts more than 3 million visitors a year. Aptly advertised as a place for children to “learn about the natural world in a living, breathing, and roaring classroom,” this zoo educates an estimated 1 million visitors each year through on-grounds activities and outreach programs. Former Women’s Board Coordinator and docent, Jodessa McSweeney, says, “The sea lion pool offers enormous entertainment for children and adults, and the beautiful botanical garden are lovely—delightful.” Just for fun, the Lincoln Park Zoo features an endangered species carousel ride, paddleboat rides around the South Lagoon, and an African safari simulated ride. Adult visitors should check out the Jammin’ at the Zoo concert series this summer. (The July concert features Fastball and Blind Melon; the August concert features Soul Asylum.)
Central Park Zoo, New York City, New York
Located in Central Park in New York City, this zoo is conveniently located and reasonably priced ($8.00 for adults and $3.00 for children). The Central Park Zoo unofficially began in the 1860s as a collection of donated animals. In 1988, the newly remodeled Central Park Zoo opened its doors, featuring a variety of habitats such as a steamy rain forest habitat and an icy Antarctic penguin habitat. The Central Park Zoo attracts nearly 1 million visitors each year and offers year-round educational programs, including a Wildlife Theater, toddler preschool programs, interactive family workshops, and after-school and weekend classes for school-age children. The zoo is committed to protecting and helping endangered species through the AZA. New York visitors and residents should check out the zoo’s 20th Birthday Celebration this August 9-10.
Montgomery Zoo, Montgomery, Alabama
The Montgomery Zoo is known in Alabama as the “perfect-sized zoo,” a zoo that can be visited in half a day. Conveniently located and reasonably priced ($8.00 for adults and $5.00 for children), this zoo features over 500 animals from five different continents. Visitors can casually stroll from “country to country” to view the animals in their natural, barrier-free habitats. The zoo offers a train ride through the 40-acre grounds, a reasonably priced restaurant, and a host of educational programs for children of all ages. A relatively new elephant habitat, complete with a baby elephant, wows visitors with elephants that dance in exchange for apples and oranges. The Mann Museum, on the zoo grounds, has more than 275 exhibits of wildlife, fish, reptiles, and insects. Zoo Weekend in April and ZooBoo in October (fun-filled nights of horror) attract thousands of visitors each year, and the Montgomery Zoo Summer Camp offers children behind-scenes tours and discussions with zookeepers, curators, volunteers, and zoo vets.
The National Zoo, Washington D.C.
A part of the Smithsonian Institution, this zoo is located in the heart of Washington D.C. The 163-acre zoological park is home to over 2000 animals, representing 400 different species. Best known for its research, educational programs and conservation efforts, the National Zoo was one of the first zoos to establish a scientific research program. The zoo provides children and families opportunities to learn about wildlife and its conservation and to enjoy the peacefulness of the gardens in the Rock Creek Park. This zoo also has a variety of helpful online resources for educators, parents, and students, including fact sheets and publications. Best of all, the National Zoo is free to the public, supported by generous donations and volunteer efforts. As Stacy DeBroff, nationally acclaimed parenting expert and founder and president of momcentral.com, says, “This zoo rocks. It’s an amazing zoo—appropriate for kids of all ages.”
Often referred to as “the world-famous San Diego Zoo,” this zoo is internationally recognized for its 4,000-plus rare and endangered animals, representing more than 800 species and subspecies. The zoo is located on 100 acres, not counting the Wild Animal Park, which has 1,800 acres of land, more than half of which has been set aside as protected native species habitat. The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park is also home to the Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) research center. The zoo has a wide range of summer educational activities, programs, and events for adults and children, including Wild Animal Camp, Family Caravan Tour, Jumatano Roar & Snore Sleepover, and Fisher-Price® Play Weekend. The price of admission to the zoo is $34 for adults and $24 for children; 2-day admission is $40 for adults and $30 for children. Check the Web site for package deals for the zoo and the Wild Animal Park, as well as deals for nearby hotels.