Have you ever kissed a sea lion? Walked with a cheetah, or looked a hawk in the eye? Well the good news is that you can do all these things and much more!
How you may ask?
To create powerful connections between people and wildlife, many zoos offer special close-encounters. These animal encounters allow visitors to gain special access to animal ambassadors with the hope of inspiring love and respect for wildlife.
One of the best ways to instill a special interest in wildlife is to create a memorable connection or interaction. It is far more exciting to see, feed or even touch an animal than it is to see a picture in a book, and gaining that experience leaves a much stronger impression.
While taking your family to a zoo is a fun way to spend the day and creates the opportunity to meet animals from around the world, many of whom are endangered, a special encounter can be the ultimate zoo adventure.
There are encounters with a variety of animals at nearly every zoo, however I have chosen to focus on some of the rarest or most beloved animal species. The animal encounters represented in this list are all presented at AZA accredited zoos and aquariums.
Shedd Aquarium Chicago, IL
Everyone loves penguins, they look cute, cuddly and oh the way they waddle! But penguins are fish eating predators and there is much more to them than meets the eye. Shedd Aquarium offers the opportunity to get up close and personal during their hour long Penguin Encounter. Families with children ages 6 and older can sign up for this memorable encounter.
Houston Zoo Houston, TX
Cheetahs are not only elegant and beautiful, but their remarkably long legs allow them to reach top speeds of nearly 70 mph, making them the fastest land animal. They use their ability to accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than 3 seconds to aid them in hunting gazelles. The Cheetah Walk is a once in a lifetime encounter with an amazing big cat, but you must be 12 or older to participate.
National Aviary Pittsburgh, PA
We have all seen the enormous birds soaring high on hot air thermals, but wouldn’t it be amazing to be face to face with these majestic birds? Birds of prey are carnivorous and often elusive birds. While we all may have heard of red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons, spending time up close with these fierce birds can be an unforgettable experience. So if you are 6 years or older check out the Bird of Prey Encounter, you won’t forget it!
Phoenix Zoo Phoenix, AZ
The giraffe is the tallest land mammal and can reach 18 feet in height! That means that they could easily look in the second story of a house. Despite their incredibly long necks, they have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as humans, however theirs are much larger. Giraffes use their 20 inch long tongues to eat leaves from the acacia tree. Visitors of all ages will enjoy getting up close with these remarkable animals at the Giraffe Encounter.
Houston Zoo Houston, TX
Sea lions may look adorable but they are actually highly intelligent and social creatures. While they can often be seen sunning themselves on rocks or beaches, they also spend time in the sea, hunting. In the water, sea lions appear acrobatic but they are formidable predators. When hunting they can dive to depths of 900 feet and hold their breath for nearly 10 minutes. If you have a budding conservationist or animal trainer they are sure to love the Ultimate Sea Lion Encounter or the Sea Lion Kiss Encounter, both are intended for all ages.
Zoo Atlanta Atlanta, GA
Who doesn’t love giant pandas? It is hard to believe that an animal with a face like that could be one of the rarest species on earth with only around 1,000 remaining in the wild. A pandas favorite thing to do is eat bamboo and eat a lot of it. In fact they eat for about 12 hours a day, consuming up to 15% of their body weight. Visitors of all ages can get the opportunity to learn about, meet and feed one of these magnificent animals in the Giant Panda Wild Encounter.
SeaWorld San Diego, CA
Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most iconic animals in the world. Flipper leapt his way into our hearts over 50 years ago and there has been no turning back. Dolphins are highly intelligent aquatic mammals that live in family groups and use a process similar to sonar, known as echolocation, to find food. For a once in a lifetime experience, families will love the Dolphin Encounter, just don’t be afraid to get a little wet. However, if you have ever dreamed of working with dolphins and don’t mind donning a wet-suit, try the Dolphin Interaction Program, note that participants must be at least 10 years of age and 48 inches tall.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Colorado Springs, CO
Elephants are typically known as having a good memory, but being able to learn and retain information is especially useful when you have a long life span like the African elephant, who can live up to 70 years. These incredibly intelligent and strong animals live in family groups lead by a matriarch. Elephants can cover up to 50 miles in a day when food is scarce and can lift over 600 lbs using only their trunk. An up-close Elephant Encounter is sure to leave a lasting impression.
San Diego Zoo San Diego, CA
Big cats are some of the most impressive and awe-inspiring predators on earth. They use their extraordinary senses, strength and cunning to establish their place as top predators in their respective ecosystems. Crazy About Cats offers a unique chance to go behind the scenes to learn more about these amazing felines.
Georgia Aquarium Atlanta, GA
The whale shark is the largest fish in the sea reaching lengths of up to 40 feet, that is as long as a school bus! But before you get nervous and start looking for rows of sharp teeth, these sharks are known as gentle giants and are one of three shark species that are filter feeders, meaning they primarily eat tiny plankton. Whale sharks are a vulnerable species and are even hunted in some waters off the coast of Asia. Journey With Giants offers the only opportunity in the U.S. to swim with whale sharks, but you must be 12 years or older.
All of the animal encounters listed require a fee, with a portion of that fee going to support conservation of that species in many cases. Preregistering is strongly advised and necessary in some cases. Participant requirements and restrictions along with encounter details and tips can be found on each zoo or aquarium website.
Build some family memories with these once in a lifetime opportunities to learn about and engage with wildlife. Encounters like these are sure to inspire wonder and awe!