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Taking the Kids

Children's Adventures at the Zoo

September 15, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

My daughter Reggie was face to face with a hungry grizzly bear foraging for food. Her brother, Matt, was watching a den of wolves. But neither was one bit scared.

That's because we were watching animals at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, the spectacular 600-acre home of dozens of Pacific Northwest animals overseen by the Tacoma, Wash., Metropolitan Park District. Our visit gave the kids a chance to learn about some of the creatures that inhabit nearby Mt. Rainier National Park: great horned owls, black bear, cougars and caribous.

Wherever families are traveling, regional zoos should be a must-see. They offer children an opportunity to find out about the animals who call the area home, plus a chance to meet or, at least, see kids who live in that part of the country or the world. In addition, zoos are something children almost always enjoy.

My family and I went through a dark tunnel at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum to see what animals do in the heat of the day in the desert. At Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, we toured a five-acre replica of a Midwestern farmyard. (Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the few free zoos in the country and one of the most visited. Call [312] 742-2000. Call the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at [602] 883-2702.)

For those who long for more exotic species, remember that breezing through exhibits of African or Asian animals at the world-famous San Diego or Bronx zoos may give them a head start on their next social studies project.

(See the snow leopard in the Himalayan Highlands Habitat at the Bronx Zoo. Call [718] 367-1010.)

In San Diego, don't miss the Polar Bear Plunge, one of the largest polar bear exhibits anywhere. Call [619] 231-1515. Kids 11 years old and younger can visit free during October.

Don't think zoos in colder climates are just for summer or spring. There are plenty of indoor exhibits and far fewer people in cold months to keep you from making faces at a chimp or snapping a picture of your toddler petting a goat.

"You might have the whole place to yourself," said Tom Naiman, Bronx Zoo assistant curator for education.

Just don't force the kids to see too much in one day. No matter how much they love animals, they will get hungry and tired. They may be ready to leave before you feel you've gotten your money's worth.

"The biggest mistake parents make at zoos is running from exhibit to exhibit. They don't really end up seeing anything," said Naiman, who oversees school programs. Call ahead and talk to someone in the education department about exhibits or workshops.

For teens and preteens who think they're too old for animal talk, Naiman suggests focusing attention on animal behavior. Ask the teens how they would have built the exhibit differently.

Allen Nyhuis, author of "The Zoo Book: A Guide to America's Best" (Carousel Press, $14.95), offers these tips for keeping the younger crowd enthusiastic rather than cranky:

Stop at the zoo shop for a batch of animal postcards for each preschooler. Kids can then search for the animals on their cards.

Hand each grade-schooler a pencil and a sheet of lined paper on which they can write the alphabet, one letter per line. They will look for animals to write down for each letter. At the end of the day, the child with the most animals wins.

"You can't force kids to like wild animals better than roller coasters," concedes Nyhuis, but springing for a stuffed zoo animal might help them enjoy and learn from the experience. So might magazines--often available at zoo gift shops--that are devoted to one animal and are filled with weird and wonderful facts kids like. (Imagine jumping over a 20-foot hole. A polar bear can.)

Here are a couple of other zoos around the country that will send the kids home full of knowledge about the animals of the region:

* View rare white alligators at the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and see what life was like in the area a century ago. Meet armadillos, snakes and opossums at the same time the kids can visit an antique boatyard or sample crawfish pie or pralines. (Call [504] 861-2537 and ask about the Louisiana Swamp Festival, Oct. 5 and 6, and 12 and 13.)

* Visit bobcats and red wolves at the North Carolina Zoological Park's 200-acre North American exhibit that includes a re-creation of the Sonoran desert and cypress swamp, as well as a farm area where children can pet the animals and pick fruit. Another exhibit allows children to follow a North Carolina stream from mountains to the coast. (Call the zoo in Asheboro at [910] 879-7000.)

* Crawl into a wolf den at the six-acre Northern Trail exhibit at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. It creates cold areas of the north where visitors can see bears, elk, river otters and bald eagles. Don't miss the orangutans swinging through the trees in the new Trail of Vines exhibit. (Call the zoo at [206] 684-4800.)

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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