When Parents set out to find the top zoos in the country, we identified 50 where kids can pet and often feed the wildlife. Then we narrowed it down to these leaders of the pack that your little tyke will love.
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1. Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
It's unbelievable how close kids can get to the animals here. In Wallaroo Station, the zoo's four-and-a-half-acre Australian-themed children's area, kids can brush a goat's fur, feed birdseed lollipops to parakeets, and walk down a path as kangaroos and wallabies hop in front of them. They can ride on a llama or, in another part of the zoo, a camel -- which makes the pony treks seem almost trite. In Lowry's expanded Safari Africa exhibit, your family can climb up on a platform to offer one of the giraffes a snack. "Kids squeal in delight when the giraffe sticks out its 18-inch-long tongue to snatch a cracker," says Craig Pugh, acting director. Other cool animals that your children can feed: a white rhino, stingrays, and lorikeets.
Since Lowry Park is the only zoo in the country with an accredited preschool and kindergarten on-site, the staff is especially comfortable fielding questions from families. When your little kids need a break from the animal action, head to the playground or one of five rides including a kiddie coaster. And if you need to relax or nurse, there's even a "mommy stop," a shaded area with benches and child-size picnic tables.
2. Brookfield Zoo, Illinois
The Hamill Family Play Zoo is the most awesome exhibit for kids. Inside a hollowed-out tree, kids can dress up in animal and zookeeper costumes, make an art project, get their face painted, and pet a hedgehog, an armadillo, and other wildlife. On weekends in the summer at the Chicago-area park, they can release ladybugs in the nearby children's garden or help harvest some of the crops. "We'll parade across the zoo with kids carrying the corn to the bison exhibit or the herbs to the area where monkeys live," says Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., Brookfield's director. "We try to make it as informal as possible. Kids need unstructured playtime."
As your family walks around, chances are you'll stumble across a "zoo chat" -- there are about 300 of them a week -- in which keepers answer questions about the different species on exhibit. Or you might see a zoo employee showing off a hissing cockroach or another small animal in a "critter cart." It's practically impossible to do everything in a day, but try not to miss the dolphin show, butterfly exhibit, and the traditional children's zoo, where kids can pet farmyard animals, take a spin on one of the country's largest hand-carved wooden carousels, and use telescopes in the playground to spy on the Mexican gray wolves in the distance.
3. St. Louis Zoo
There's no zoo that showcases penguins better than here. At the entrance to Penguin & Puffin Coast, your family will see the Humboldt penguins in a setting designed to resemble the shoreline of Peru, complete with a 22-foot waterfall. Then you walk inside a chilly cove and watch three other species (the zoo has 91 penguins in all) as they swim or congregate above the water. "Even toddlers in strollers get a great view," says Louise Bradshaw, education director.
The playground is also ingenious. Kids can go down a clear tube slide that crosses through the river-otter exhibit, giving them a nose-to-nose view. Infants and toddlers have their own place to hang -- the Cubs & Pups Pad in ZOOmagination Station, an indoor area with animal puppets and costumes. A sea-lion show, insectarium, and train tour are also big hits with kids under 8.
4. Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Kick off your day in the fun-filled Kids Kingdom. Your little ones may come face-to-face with a reindeer or get licked by a white-tailed deer (yes, antibacterial soap is nearby). Kids can crawl underneath the meerkat exhibit and pop up in an acrylic dome just inches away from the animals. "The mammals like to sit on top of the dome, so parents get a picture of what looks like a meerkat on top of their kid's head," says Henry Kacprzyk, Kids Kingdom's curator. A bridge with an alligator below and a big playground with spider webbing round out the fun.
Save time to see the two-story shark tank in the aquarium and the Water's Edge exhibit, where children can walk down a 30-foot tunnel with polar bears swimming above and around them.
5. Fort Wayne Children's Zoo
This park was designed for little ones. Near the entrance is Indiana Family Farm, where children can peek into the chicken coop, brush the goats, and pump water into a trough. The 20-foot-high tree house in the Indonesian Rain Forest has an entrance that only small kids can fit through. Over in the Australian-themed area, children can burrow into a tunnel and pretend to be wombats or ride in a log boat to get a look at Eastern gray kangaroos and dingos.
When the new African Journey opens on June 6, there will be child-size caves, close encounters with lions, and a chance for families to feed the giraffes.
There are at least four "creature features" daily, when keepers talk about the animals they care for. Healthy children's meals and low-cost wagon and stroller rentals make your outing even easier.
6. San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium
The San Antonio Zoo has the first children's zoo especially created for the 5-and-under set. Young explorers get their own entrance to Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot, stone lily pads to hop on. From there, the only problem is what to do first: Dig up carrots to feed the guinea pigs? Look for animal tracks? Dress up like a vet? Or splash in a small stream (while you relax on the nearby beach)? Stop what you're doing around 2 p.m., when the flamingos are fed shrimp -- the snack that makes the birds pink.
Older kids will like the Africa Live! exhibit, where they can watch hippos and crocodiles swim underwater. They'll also enjoy feeding lorikeets nectar and seeing the Bear Grottos.
7. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Kids flock to the nursery in the children's zoo. That's where staff care for and feed the infant animals -- some of them in diapers. "We just had a newborn cheetah and a penguin in the nursery, and most likely we'll have different animals in there this summer," says Thane Maynard, executive director.
Other family faves: a walk-through turkey cage, a glass bubble that lets kids poke their heads inside the manatee exhibit, and a trek over to the Wildlife Canyon to see a red-haired Sumatran rhino wallow in the mud. Call ahead to register for a stroller safari, where you and your toddler get a guided tour from a naturalist, or a Family Night Hike, on which children can see bats and feed armadillos, aardvarks, and other animals that are most active after dark.
8. San Diego Zoo
There are 4,000 animals to see at the San Diego Zoo. Your plan of attack: Hop on the skyride or half-hour bus tour, and then linger at a few of the unique exhibits, such as the ones with giant pandas and the elephants. Only three other American zoos (in Atlanta, Memphis, and Washington, D.C.) have black-and-white pandas, and thanks to a platform, your kids can get what's arguably the best look at them in San Diego. Afterward, check out the adjacent discovery center, where little ones will have a blast climbing into a panda den and pushing buttons to learn about the animals.
In the Elephant Odyssey exhibit, opening in June, families can watch eight of these African animals get cared for -- from pedicures to weigh-ins. Kids can also watch the animals play in the mud. Don't leave without stopping by the children's zoo. Out of the 200 animals, about 45 -- including meerkats and wombats -- have received special training so staff can take them out to meet the kids.
9. Houston Zoo
Trainers are the rock stars at the Houston Zoo. Throughout the day, families can peek in on them teaching new behaviors to the lions, giving the elephants a bath, or, in the children's zoo, feeding the fruit bats and pelicans. "The most interesting activities here usually take place behind the scenes," says Rick Barongi, the zoo's director. "It's one thing to tell kids about how these animals are taken care of -- and it's far more memorable for them to watch it up close."
Under the Butterfly Stage, there's a morning storytime and a chance to touch small animals like chinchillas and snakes, as well as the Zooper Challenge, a game show that uses child volunteers. And if you have thrill seekers in your household, don't miss crawling through a tunnel in the piranha aquarium.
18. Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas
In a big red barn, kids can see cows being milked and may get a glimpse of eggs that are hatching.
10. Bronx Zoo, New York City
The children's zoo is a blast. Kids learn about the motions and defenses of animals by pretending to be one. They can sit inside a heron's nest, try to jump as far as a frog does, pop out of a prairie-dog burrow, climb into a turtle shell, or crawl through an otter log. "It's pretty cool because the real animals they're imitating may be watching them," explains Robert Cook, Ph.D., general director.
Another must-see: Congo Gorilla Forest where your family can get an up-close look at 20 of these animals, babies included. Also catch the Madagascar! exhibit (especially if your family loved the lemurs in the DreamWorks movie); take a 20-minute monorail ride around Wild Asia to see tigers, elephants, and rhinos; and stop by the reptile house to visit the 100-year-old snapping turtle.
And the Runners-Up...
We're almost as wild about these 15 zoos as we are about the ten winners.
11. Dallas Zoo
Kids can feed mealworms to nearly 20 species of birds -- including doves, cuckoos, and parrots -- at the children's zoo.
12. The Maryland Zoo, Baltimore
Kids love the 40 interactive exhibits in the children's section, especially the tunnel they can go down to see river otters swimming overhead.
13. Toledo Zoo
A new children's area -- with a tree house and super-fun honeybee exhibit -- opens in June. In the meantime, watching the hippos swim in the African Savanna exhibit is more than enough reason to go.
14. The Jacksonville Zoo
In the ultra-fun Forest Play Area, kids can look for animal footprints and swing on vines like a monkey.
15. Memphis Zoo
Kids love the sea lions show and the tank that lets them see polar bears underwater. Our prediction: A baby elephant, expected in July, will also be a big hit.
16. Indianapolis Zoo
Of course you'll catch the dolphin show -- but don't forget to see the walruses in the underwater viewing tank.
17. Zoo Atlanta
After your kids check out the petting zoo, head over to the panda exhibit to see the baby cub.
19. Smithsonian National Zoological Park Zoo, Washington, D.C.
At the Caring Corral, kids can help groom donkeys and goats while zoo staff tell them how to give animals a little TLC.
20. The Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City
The Great EscApe exhibit -- with its fallen trees, waterfalls, and pools -- will make your family feel as if you're in the rain forest.
21. Phoenix Zoo
Its children's area has more than 30 goats to brush, plus a rock-filled cavern and a water grotto to explore.
22. Philadelphia Zoo
In its award-winning Big Cat Falls exhibit, families can watch a white lion through floor-to-ceiling windows -- then head to their nearby "research station" filled with computer games and fun activities.
23. Miami Metrozoo
The children's zoo is packed with unusual animals like a blue-tongued skink (a type of lizard) and a kinkajou (a relative of the raccoon) plus usual faves like sheep and pigs.
24. Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Kids can explore a realistic cave, pet a goat, and burn off some steam in an animal-themed playground.
25. Lincoln Children's Zoo, Nebraska
Kids can ride a miniature train through a wooden tunnel, feed a camel, and pretend to be a baby chick.
Stick Your Neck Out
Your family can feed giraffes at any of these zoos:
Binder Park Zoo, Battle Creek, Michigan
Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Florida
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs
Cincinnati Children's Zoo & Botanical Garden
Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, Missouri
Evansville Mesker Park Zoo
Fort Wayne Children's Zoo (starting June 6)
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Florida
Maryland Zoo, Baltimore
Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon
Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle
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