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The Heartland’s aquariums and zoos

By Robin Winkelman, courtesy St. Louis Zoo

Imagine climbing into an open vehicle to see a variety of animals in their natural habitats. You don’t have to travel to Africa; you can get a full animal experience touring a zoo or an aquarium in America’s heartland. Visitors can experience animals organized by their native regions and in wireless enclosures, so it’s like being in the environment with the wildlife.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Dubuque, Iowa
There are many places to explore at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

“We have a 10-acre campus with two buildings,” director of marketing and sales John Sutter said. “The first focuses on the Mississippi River, including public culture and animals. The second building opened in 2010, and it focuses on rivers across the country.”

With a 4-D theater that can blast you with wind and smells, and a saltwater Gulf of Mexico tank, the museum offers a variety of different experiences for visitors. Included on the campus is a riverboat museum where you can climb aboard and learn about the history of the steamboat on the Mississippi.

An indoor waterfall encourages guests to explore the rivers of America. In the RiverWays gallery, visitors can enter a canal and learn in a river cave about the history of rivers in the United States. Rivers to the Sea teaches about the fact that rivers eventually flow to the ocean, and it’s where you can see fish, sharks and rays in a 40,000-gallon tank. The RiverWorks area of the museum is a hands-on experience with crawl spaces and a water table.

There are also outdoor exhibits to explore. The wetland is the perfect environment for spotting bald eagles, turtles and red-tailed hawks. And for groups, there are an amazing number of possibilities. The museum offers group tours, a step-on-guide service and behind-the-scenes tours.

Columbus Zoo
Powell, Ohio
The Columbus Zoo is one of the most unusual in the country. The zoo now houses the first gorilla ever born in a zoo and the oldest gorilla ever to live in a zoo. It also recently opened its Polar Frontier exhibit, which is home to Alaskan brown bears, polar bears and arctic foxes.

The other regions of the zoo are Asia Quest, North America, African Forest, Australia, the Islands of Southeast Asia and the Shores. The Shores includes the Manatee Coast, where the manatees are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Rescue and Rehabilitation Program. This means that the manatees have been rescued from the wild after suffering illness or injuries such as boat strikes. Once the manatees are rehabilitated, they will be rereleased into Florida waters. The Columbus Zoo is one of only two organizations outside the state of Florida that are involved in this program. Another fun feature of the zoo is Dinosaur Island, where visitors can climb aboard the Dinosaur Island Boat ride and assist Jack Hanna as he searches for missing dinosaurs.

During October, the zoo will have Boo at the Zoo for Halloween fun. There will be a Pumpkin Plaza and a Zoo Seek-and-Find for chances to win prizes. Other events are a Marvel Superhero Live Action Show that will feature Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and the Green Goblin. The show will be a 30-minute educational and humorous performance. A minimaze is also available, as well as a new Little Boo Magic Show.

Groups can also have a fun day exploring.

“We have a lot of hands-on experiences, such as an area called Animal Encounters Villages, where people can get up close and personal with the animals. Sometimes, it might be reptiles or a penguin or cheetahs,” director of communications Jennifer Wilson said.

The zoo also offers behind-the-scenes experiences about animal health care, where visitors can see how animals, such as the manatees, are cared for when they are sick.