Zoo Tales: A Winter Respite
The winter months of January and February are seldom thought of as a time for leisurely strolls through the park and stops to smell flowers blooming or watch animals scampering around natural habitats. But at the North Carolina Zoo, that’s exactly what’s in store for the savvy zoo-goer.
If fact, winter visits could be the park’s best-kept secret. Although most visitors come in summer, when children are out of school and families are often vacationing, the winter months have much to offer — particularly for those visitors who prefer to see the plants and animals at a more leisurely pace.
During the winter months, zoo visitors will see a noticeable absence of crowds. This means better viewing of the animals, since there will be fewer people at the overlooks. And many of the zoo’s outdoor animals are more active in the winter months. They are more likely to be moving about in their exhibit areas and more likely to be in an area where visitors can see them. The polar bear, one of the zoo’s most popular animals, and other cold-climate North American animals are especially more active in the cooler months.
The zoo’s R.J. Reynolds Forest Aviary, one of four climate-controlled indoor exhibits, re-creates the wonders of a tropical rain forest. Inside, visitors can enjoy more than 3,000 tropical plants and dozens of exotic birds. USA Today selected it as one of the 10 best natural-habitat exhibits in American zoos. Few other places in North Carolina can offer winter temperatures of 80 degrees, chirping birds and blooming flowers in a green, lush environment.
In the park, visitors are never far from an indoor exhibit, where temperatures are constant and comfortable year-round. And since visitors are usually closer to the animals inside, this often means better viewing.
Like the tropical Forest Aviary, the African Pavilion offers a warm respite where visitors can now leisurely stroll through the Tropical Plant Walk and view plants representing a variety of Africa’s major ecosystems. Additionally there, visitors can view, year-round, the largest collection of baboons in any accredited zoo in the United States — in both the indoor and outdoor exhibits.
The zoo’s Sonora Desert habitat is another indoor escape from the winter chill. The 14,000-square-foot re-creation of the desert in the Southwest U.S. offers tarantulas, Gila monsters, roadrunners, ocelots and a host of other desert creatures and plants. The exhibit’s three separate plant communities represent the desert’s Sonoran Flats, the Saguaro Uplands and the Desert Canyons.
Another indoor exhibit, Streamside in the North America region, is the most North Carolina-oriented of the zoo’s exhibits and was designed to present a look at life in and along the streams that flow through our state. The 17,000-square-foot complex houses a diverse collection of many of North Carolina’s plant and animal species, including otters, bobcats, songbirds, reptiles and a 27,000-gallon aquarium with many of the state’s game fish.
More than five miles of wooded trails await the more adventurous souls who want to be outside. But keep in mind that there are temperature and humidity limits for exhibiting some of the animals outside. Some, for example, are brought inside if the temperature is below about 45 degrees.
Central North Carolina’s mild winters mean relief from the sultry days of summer. So see the zoo without the summer crowds, where fewer park visitors mean shorter lines, not only to see the animals, but also for the restaurants, gift shops, ticket booths and free transportation system. Few places can offer a day’s worth of entertainment and education at such a low price — and give visitors an escape from winter’s chill.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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