A wise person once said, “Teach children to love nature because people will protect what they love.” By extension, the same can be said of the fury, scaly, slithery, and leathery creatures that exist outside our urban worlds. Many zoos and wildlife enclosures are not simply about entertainment, but education and developing an honest reverence for the creatures that share our planet. To that end, here are a few places that offer unique opportunities to ‘oh and ah ‘ over big cats, big dogs, big snakes and a few cute little ones too.
Jungle Cat World in Orono near Bowmanville, Ontario is one of those rare private zoos that exist almost in the middle of nowhere (the closest major hotel chain is 15 minutes away) built with equal blend of affection and tenacity. A diversion from Highway 401 on your way to Toronto, the theme is obviously big cats – lions, leopards, jaguars, various breeds of tigers, lynx and even ocelots. There’s a good view of the animals here, most bred for zoo purposes or rescued from undesirable pet enclosures.
Leo and friends share attention at this rustic facility with a pair of Arctic Wolves, several gray ones, a pen of sheep, monkeys in cages, two tropical birds on a perch, many free roaming goats and one very skittish deer. The goats you can feed corn bought at the entrance for $2 a bag.
Feeding the cats, however, is left to the professionals.
At 1:40pm each day, the Siberian Tiger grabs the frozen turkey through the hole in the fence and happily heads back to his rock in the sun. Hand raised and with little fear of people, he lives in this seemingly small enclosure willingly pacing within feet of a crowd that’s gathered to watch and maybe even learn. The open concept and circular design of this family-friendly park makes keeping track of everyone easy and you can even kennel Fido for $10 while you visit (if you’re travelling with a dog).
The Granby Zoo, Granby, Quebec
Guided by a handler at the Granby Zoo in Granby, Quebec, you can ride a camel – for about three minutes. It’s no journey across the Gobi Desert, but it does give you “I rode a camel” bragging rights. That’s the only animal here you’ll get close to gripping distance – others remain at a comfortable, yet visible, distance.
The cloverleaf zoo layout is easy to negotiate but takes time. The design balances both the educational mandate of the facility, housing the animals in as natural enclosures as possible, and the entertainment demands of families looking to actually see the animals. Add a classic midway with roller coaster, Ferris wheel, and bumper cars and a 12-acre waterpark and you’ve got a two-day adventure worth the drive an hour away from Montreal.
It’s walkable (or enjoy the monorail ride over half the park) along paved paths linking themed areas: Africa, South Pacific, South America and Asia. Africa is particularly impressive because the view of the elephants through leaves of trees is the next best thing to a safari, and you can see hippos at eye level through the glass wall of their pool.
New this season is Oceanian World that adds creatures of the sea to the zoo’s collection. The aquariums are filled with sharks, seahorses, and tropical fish including Nemo and friends, and there’s a touch pool of sting ray and other Great Barrier Reef residents. Like the camel ride, the multi-media show that follows the journey of Kaila, a sea turtle, from New Zealand to Australia costs extra, but it’s something you can’t experience anywhere else.
A tour through Reptilia in Vaughan, Ontario (minutes from Canada’s Wonderland) might be the closest you’ll ever get to alligators, snakes, turtles and frogs species from all over the world, though most of these were born in captivity. Standing inches from the soft face, glass-like eyes and smiling mouth of a 25-foot python you realize just how beautiful these creatures many people irrationally fear really are. Reptilia is part entertainment, part education and part therapeutic for the adults (and it’s always adults) reacting with unnecessary anxiety to these fascinating creatures.
Reptilia is not a typical zoo. Located in a strip mall near blocks of outlet stores, there’s no natural light, outdoor air or picnic area. But within these concrete walls, behind glass, is an incredible up-close exposure to many of the world’s most interesting boa constrictors, tomato frogs, soft shell turtles, albino alligators, monitor lizards, skinks, cobras and more breeds of pythons than you’ve watched on Animal Planet. Take a close look at Buttercup’s warm almost kitten-like face and gradually this yellow (albino actually) 15-foot python becomes endearing. During the demonstration in the small theatre, you can touch her too.
Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre, Haliburton, Ontario
The four tiny fury pups turn their heads upward and howl in high pitch yelps, their tiny mouths barely visible above the grass. Adult wolves randomly trot across the clearing. A dozen or so people in the semi-circle shaped observation area clamour toward the one-way viewing glass to a get a good look or photo. Others stop and listen – speakers inside the room capture the sounds of the wild wolf pack outside, protected at the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre in Haliburton, Ontario.
In total this privately-owned 70,000 acre conservation site offers camping, cabins, hiking trails, and a ‘walk in the clouds’ suspension bridge tour of the forest 10 to 20 metres above ground. In 2012, there are plans to open North America’s largest zip line. Despite all the outdoor adventure, it’s the 15-acre enclosure for a pack of Timber Wolves that draws family attention.
It’s amazing to see these wily dog-like creatures close up, but they are wild and living as natural an existence as possible. They are free to come and go from the observation area, so viewing is not guaranteed (but likely if you arrive earlier in the day and stay about 30 to 60 minutes). Also at the centre, is an education area with stuffed examples of local wildlife, a film about wolves playing throughout the day, and hands-on exhibits where you can test your strength against that of several animals, including wolves.
There’s a naturalist available to answer countless questions including, ‘when’s feeding time?’ It’s random, attempting to match the animals’ natural eating practices and sometimes happens at night, after the OPP have called the centre to come pick up a road kill carcass. The centre is the closest you’ll come to – safely – encountering these majestic and often misunderstood wild creatures.
This article was previously published in Ottawa Family, Spring 2012