Have you been to the National Zoo? With its vast array of realistic habitats, grand scenery, and hilly terrain stretched out over 160-plus acres of urban parkland in Washington, DC, it’s amazing. But some say a family would be hard-pressed to take in all the animal wonderland has to offer in a single day – especially with younger kids in tow. Thankfully, Virginia offers up a full slate of family-sized zoos, conveniently situated across the Commonwealth.
Begin your journey just outside of Richmond with the Metro Richmond Zoo in Chesterfield County. Currently about a third as big as the National Zoo, Jim Andelin, zoo director, said this local treasure just acquired 40 additional acres for future development. Here, you and the kids can feed one of the zoo’s nine giraffes while strolling across a walkway that spans the habitat. Next, say hello to the Bengal tigers, the cheetahs (imported directly from a center in Africa), the rare white rhino, and the takin. A national treasure in China, this endangered animal is related to the musk ox and mountain goat. Kids will also be mesmerized while watching siamangs and other acrobatic primates playfully walk, climb, swing,And chatter with each other on their little island playground. Metro Richmond Zoo’s budgie exhibit has been a favorite animal interaction spot for families since it opened in 2009. “Buy a budgie stick for a dollar and feed these beautiful, colorful birds,” Andelin said. “Many will fly down and perch on your arms, shoulders, and even your head.” For a quick tour, hop on the safari-themed train or take a sky ride. Bring a picnic lunch or grab a snack and drink at the on-site concessions stand. Before you depart, be sure to let the little ones ride the carousel for an extra treat.
Next, head east to Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, where, starting this month, you and the family can discover the new exhibit Trail of The Tiger, featuring two Malayan tigers and the animals that would surround them in their natural habitat: Asian otters, orangutans, siamangs, gibbons, tapirs, and birds. Be sure to also check out the African exhibit, Okavango Delta, home to a pride of six lions, giraffes, bongos, mandrills, and elephants. At Virginia Zoo, you and your family can also take a leisurely stroll through beautifully themed gardens.Bring the kids on a Tuesday for story-time with the animals, and let them splash around in the fountains by the park’s Entrance before you head out. No outside food or drink is permitted, though you can grab lunch at the restaurant in Okavango Delta, which features a full menu served cafeteria-style. Or bring your lunch and stop by Lafayette Park next door for a picnic and playtime.
Families can discover three zoos, each with its own personality, in the western part of the state not far off Interstate 81. Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke is one of only two zoos in the nation located atop a mountain, and is home to not only domestic animals, but also exotic creatures from Southeast Asia, since its climate is conducive to these animals’ natural habitat. Animals from the Roanoke Valley such as red wolves and screech owls live here, as well as foreign species like the pallas cats from the Himalayas, red pandas, fishing cats from Malaysia, a snow leopard named China,and a wolverine named Bo, who was donated to the zoo by Jack Hanna. On the third Saturday of each summer month, the zoo also opens early for a breakfast show with the animals, featuring a discussion with a zookeeper and arts and crafts for the kids.This zoo is rather small, but you and your family will still want to make a day of it, since this zoo is more than three hours from Richmond. So, grab a snack on your way out at Star City Smoothies on site, then enjoy some fun at Mill Mountain Park, which has a picnic and play area, and walking trails, including a trail to the Roanoke Star, a famous city landmark.
For a truly unique zoo experience not far from Mill Mountain, come to the Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge.At this large seasonal drive-through zoo, you and your brood can catch animals in action without leaving the family van.
Camels, llamas, zebras, deer, ostriches, and bison all stop by to greet you on your way. Buy a bucket of feed to share with the animals, but beware, the camels will likely steal and eat not only the food, but also the actual bucket! You can opt for a wagon ride through the zoo for a more personal encounter with these animals.The drive-through is not recommended for small children who might scare easily, but Virginia Safari Park also has a small walk-through zoo on site, featuring an aviary, and giraffe, tiger, and kangaroo exhibits. New this spring, Safari Park will also have a cheetah on display through a glass viewing area.
Close by, you and your family can visit Luray Zoo. What makes this park different is that all its residents are rescue animals. Unwanted pets, retired zoo animals, and confiscated animals all live here. If your children are fond of snakes and the like, be sure to check out the reptile house, where one of the largest venomous snake collections on the East Coast is housed. (Homer, a 150-year-old alligator snapping turtle also calls it home). Other animals worth a look include the African crested porcupine; the Albino woodchuck; a Bengal tiger; several birds of prey; the American alligators; and the wedge-capped capuchin monkeys, Fred and Wilma, and their offspring, Jessie, welcomed to the family in January.
As you head back across the state, you’ll find Leesburg Animal Park. Home to exotic animals such as African serval cats, lemurs, coatimundis (similar to a raccoon), and white-handed gibbons, this seasonal park features additional family activities beyond traditional zoos. Also on site is a playground with a bounce house, a farmers’ market, a pond, and a feeding and petting area where your children can get up close to llamas, Nilgai antelope, deer, camels, and barnyard animals.
“Guests can hand-feed our lorikeets in the aviary, feed the fish in the pond, and enjoy live animal encounters and arts and crafts on the weekends,” says Amy Rodriguez, zoo staffer. Pony and wagon rides are also available daily, with camel rides upon occasion, so do call or check online for details.
This zoo is not far from DC, so while you are in the area with the family, why not pop in to the National Zoo? It’s the granddaddy of them all, and it has the added bonus of being free (although parking is a bear!) So theoretically, you can visit as often as you’d like.