It may not be obvious, but the mission of many zoos is to help people as much as animals: to help people make a connection with the animals, to help visitors understand their behavior and to help guests learn about threats to their conservation and natural habitats.
One of the best ways to accomplish those goals is to allow visitors to get close to the animals, sometimes even to feed or touch them, during encounters and other experiences. When a guest makes a personal connection with an animal, “it makes an impression,” said Judy Domaszek, owner and park director of Wildwood Wildlife Park in Minocqua, Wisconsin.
Here are some great zoos in America’s heartland where groups can have enhanced experiences with animals.
Wildwood Wildlife Park
The 168-acre Wildwood Wildlife Park is less zoo and more nature preserve, where visitors can meet, greet and even feed many of the animals.
In May, the park introduced its new Safari Tram Ride, a narrated 30-minute tram tour that takes groups through all the African hoof stock, such as oryx, kudu, nyala and Thomson’s gazelle among others, that “barely exist in the wild anymore,” Domaszek said.
When groups arrive, they enter the animal encounter area where they’re greeted by goats, pigs and sheep — and even African tortoises roaming around — and can meet “animal ambassadors,” such as a skunk, a porcupine, a woodchuck, a possum and a kangaroo. The park’s curators talk about each animal, which visitors may have the chance to touch.
“We’re able to educate guests and correct myths about the animals, like porcupines don’t shoot quills,” she said.
People can feed giraffes carrots and “get a kiss from the giraffe”; and guests can use a feed stick in the parakeet encounter area, where some of the 800 parakeets “land all over you, like Mother Nature,” Domaszek said. Visitors can also buy food for the white-tailed deer that roam throughout the zoo, feeding the deer wherever they encounter them. Twice a day, staff lead programs in the amphitheater, and visitors can explore exhibits in the park’s educational center.
St. Louis Zoo
The 90-acre St. Louis Zoo is split into six zones, each featuring a different habitat and different wildlife. The Lion Zoo Railroad, which opened in 1963, runs through all the zones, and one ticket allows visitors to hop on and hop off in each zone. They can go to “The Wild” to see polar bears, puffins, orangutans and gorillas and then ride to “River’s Edge” to see hippos, rhinos, elephants, cheetahs and hyenas.
Admission to is free, but the zoo charges for some attractions. Groups can get discounts on an all-access Adventure Pass or on tickets to a la carte attractions. With two to three weeks’ notice, the group-tours office will help customize experiences, which can include any of 17 behind-the-scenes tours that offer special access and up-close animal experiences.
Big Cat Tales takes groups behind the scenes to learn about lions, tigers and leopards, and the Gentle Giants tour gives visitors a chance to feed giraffes. During the one-hour Penguin Encounter, guests meet with two Magellanic penguins and “come nose to nose with a penguin,” said Jennifer Poindexter, director of sales and catering.