While most of my trips focus on the tourist trap theme, I’m always looking for places that offer animal encounters. In order to get me moving though, these encounters have to be more that just feeding goats at some third rate petting zoo. That’s a lie. I’ve traveled over an hour to feed goats, pigs, and llamas at a crappy backyard “animal rescue.” My love of animals and my love of travel have frequently combined for animal encounter adventures. This post will focus on four.
Oglebay Resort in Wheeling, WV is a place I’ve been going to my entire life. I’ve spent many winter holidays with my family looking at their Festival of Lights presentation. As a kid I was aware of their Good Zoo but it wasn’t until 2012 that I learned of their animal encounters. At the time their top package allowed visitors to feed and interact with ring tailed lemurs, a red panda, wallabies, and red kangaroos. I believe the animals have changed since. I valued this experience so much that when I got home and found out my camera’s memory card messed up and lost pictures, I went back the following month. The cost of the 8 hour drive, the hotel, and the admission to the zoo was worth it.
The red panda was the sweetest of the animals. Timid but curious it was a lot of sitting still before she would work her way over to eat. Even then she didn’t stay long.
The kangaroos and wallabies were even less enthusiastic to have me around. One lazy kangaroo named Kobe was the only one interested in the food I was offering. He hopped over, laid down, and hung out for a while. For the record, red kangaroos are fairly large and very muscular. One stood up straight and hissed at me, it was terrifying. The picture below was snapped just after Kobe planted a kiss right on my lips. I was not expecting an enormous marsupial’s face pressed directly against mine, hence my reaction. An interesting fact about red kangaroos is that they get their color from a powder on their skin. By the end of the meet and greet my hands looked like I’d been eating Cheatos.
Apparently most of the participants in this program are only interested in the interactions. Few of the people show any interest in learning anything. My friend and I asked loads of questions and engaged with the keepers just as much as with the animals. I think they really appreciated that and took us on an extended tour. We got to see in the medical lab, visit quarantine where an enormous bald eagle was waiting for it’s enclosure to be completed, and I learned that one of the smartest animals in the zoo is the komodo dragon. Apparently they are playful in their own way and the head keeper was interested in creating an encounter with them. I also learned about how zoos “trade” animals for various breeding programs. There are sophisticated records held by zoos so that inbreeding doesn’t occur.
The daredevil lemurs were the last encounter and most fun. They would jump and dive from all corners of the cage stopping just shy of slamming into me. The zoo keeper told me they don’t recommend that encounter for children because of how terrifying the little buggers can be. Even though the lemurs have fairly developed fingers, they do not pick up their own food. They will grab it out of your hand with their mouths and then tilt their head straight back to keep the food from dripping down their chins. With their tweeker movements and large, crazy eyes, lemurs appear to be the meth heads of the animal kingdom.
There is one free animal encounter to be had at Oglebay that only VIPs know about. Since I’m a nice guy, I’ll share. The deer all around the resort are so use to humans they are practically tame. The only thing that kept them away from camping out at my cabin was my dog. You’ll notice in one picture my hair is longer and in the other it’s blue. That will show you that the deer are consistently friendly from year to year.
Wolf Pack Attack!
What seemed like a more exotic but less personal experience was at the T.I.G.E.R.S. Preservation Station in Myrtle Beach, SC. They offer a “safari” to meet many, but not all, of the animals they keep on site. You are kept with a group of 2 dozen people or so and paraded through the grounds to interact and learn about several species of exotic animals. Residents of the facility include several animal celebrities as the preserve “rents” their critters for commercials and movies. There is some controversy over this place that I won’t get into, I’m just going to speak to my experience there. One animal in particular that the place is known for (and where much of the controversy lies) is the liger Hercules. While I didn’t get to interact with Hercules, I did see the giant and got to hold a baby liger.
A celebrity animal that I did get to play with was Suryia. Suryia is known for books and commercials that feature him and his best friend Roscoe the dog. I also met Roscoe! Meeting Suryia was amazing. He was so gentle and friendly. At one point he put down his bottle, grabbed me by my neck, and pulled me over for a hug. Realizing he was still hungry but didn’t want to let go of me or his keeper, he adeptly picked the bottle back up with his foot and continued lunch. By far Suryia and the two chimpanzee infants have been my greatest animal encounters.
Amid feeding Bubbles the elephant, watching large cats hunt their toys, petting a binturong (which smells like buttered popcorn, look it up!) and watching my step as a crocodile walked past, I was attacked by an adorable pack of wolf pups! All the visitors were led into what felt like a wooden salad bowl where they let loose the tigers, ligers, and wolves (oh my!). The wolves were like any other puppies at play time, complete maniacs. It’s hard to believe these things can grow up to be killers.
Some time after I visited the Preservation, Android released the following commercial. In it are Bubbles the elephant with one of the labs that lives at the preserve and Suryia and Roscoe hamming it up.
Sharks: Natures Supermodels
For a friend’s 30th birthday, his brother and I took him to the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, NY. Living close to the Camden and Baltimore Aquariums, I’m use to much larger and grandiose aquariums. The Long Island Aquarium however, uses it’s animal encounters to make up for it’s lack of size and pizazz. It is worth mentioning that the customer service by the staff is amazing. Every person I spoke with was unbelievably kind and helpful. I try to collect liability waiver forms from the various trips and adventures I go on. The manager was thrilled with that idea and sent me one months after my shark dive.
The aquarium fits you with wet suits and a full-face mask equipped with a microphone and speaker inside. At all times you can speak with the dive master (who is in the cage with you) to ask questions or voice concerns. Through the event, the guide delivers facts about sharks that are akin to what you learn from Shark Week. What I didn’t expect was how beautiful the sharks are and how differently patterned each is. Each shark had faint markings and lines over its body that gave the impression of finger prints. Their eyes are creepy as hell, but they swim with such grace that it’s easy to look past them and admire the animal’s beauty.
Most recently I used a Groupon to visit Roer’s Zoofari in Vienna, VA. While it is essentially just a large barnyard petting zoo, I did have fun.
The Groupon was for admission, food cups for the animals, and a tractor ride to see the large animals. The tractor ride through the field brought me in contact with llamas, emus, cows, bison, and pigs. The rest of the park was filled with hungry goats, sheep, and a budgie enclosure. In the budgie enclosure you could try to lure the birds onto your hand with a Popsicle stick covered in bird seed. I found the experience to be underwhelming. The shining moment of the day however was feeding a giraffe for the first time! Of course it cost extra but it was totally worth it. Sadly the giraffe had some sort of disability and was unable to keep it’s tongue in it’s mouth.
Lastly I’ll end with an honorable mention to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park in Halifax, PA. I went there several years ago but sadly have no pictures to show for it. It’s very much like Roer’s but with more animals. Instead of a tractor you get to drive through a field in a school bus with the top cut off. The animals there are a lot more interactive and the grounds are much more beautiful.
Please contact me if you have any leads on other animal encounters. I’ve recently learned of a place in California where you can swim with otters! I need to go update my bucket list.