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11 Interactive Zoos

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Visiting your local zoo is always a great way to experience and appreciate a whole spectrum of animals, but it’s hard to feel as if you’re really interacting with those fuzzy monkeys or roaring lions or sleek dolphins when you’re (safely, of course) ensconced behind glass or a gate. Luckily, there are plenty of zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks that have put together fun (and, again, safe!) ways to interact with some of their finest residents in a very hands-on manner. If you’re looking to make your next zoo trip one to remember, may we suggest taking the plunge (sometimes literally) with one of these interactive zoo experiences?

1. Adventure Aquarium – Camden, New Jersey

Adventure Aquarium Facebook

Plenty of people can swim with dolphins (and, yes, we’ll tell you where you can actually do that), but not everyone is willing to dive deep with sharks. The appropriately titled Adventure Aquarium at the New Jersey Aquarium offers its visitors the unique opportunity to swim and snorkel with sharks. After training (thank goodness), you can get your swim on in a submerged channel at the top of the Shark Realm exhibit, complete with cut outs that allow you to lean out into the tank—and which sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, and more can swim into, should they desire. Once your shark swim is complete, you can join up with the stingrays in the Stingray Lagoon, where you can swim with them and feed them. After you get out of the shark-infested waters, feel free to wander the aquarium (and show off your souvenir t-shirt, snorkel, and mask to passersby), all included in the $175 ticket price.

2. Lowry Park Zoo – Tampa, Florida

Lowry Park Zoo Facebook

A number of zoos offer special feeding interactive experiences, but Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo is one of the few to feature white rhino feeding options. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, patrons can help give the rhino population a snack, a unique and rare experience that a slim number of zoos can provide. Are rhinos not your thing? You can also feed the giraffes at Lowry Park—or, really, why not just do both?

3. The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park – Wynnewood, Oklahoma

GW Zoo

It’s right there in its name—Oklahoma’s Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park is all about hands-on experience, and there is nothing quite as hands-on as a little something the zoo calls “Play Time With a Baby.” You read that correctly: for just $45 per pair, you can interact with available baby animals for 15 minutes. While the zoo offers a variety, visitors most often get to play with wee tigers.

4. Adelaide Zoo – Adelaide, Australia


Australia’s Adelaide Zoo offers not one, but two interactive experiences. First up is the Big Cat Interactive, which varies from day to day (depending on moods and availability) and can include stuff like feeding lions or getting up close with Sumatran tigers. You can also hang out with their Nile hippo pair, Susie and Brutus (at $90 a person, it’s a bit cheaper than the Big Cat, which costs $145), assisting a zookeeper with their daily mouth check and the distribution of yummy hippo snacks (don’t eat them, okay?).

5. San Diego Zoo – San Diego, California

San Diego Zoo Facebook

The San Diego Zoo offers a number of “special experiences,” including the one-and-a-half-hour-long “Backstage Pass” (it will only cost you $99 per person). The Pass will allow you to touch, help train, and get up close and personal with plenty of the zoo’s many animals. Popular variations of the Pass include meeting a cheetah (and getting a photo with your new spotted pal), a chance to touch the rhinos, and feeding plenty of other zoo residents.

6. Indianapolis Zoo – Indianapolis, Indiana


Are sharks not really your speed? The Indianapolis Zoo offers the chance to swim with their kinder cousins, thanks to their Dolphin In-Water adventure. After classroom training, you’ll get to spend 35 minutes in the dolphin pool (wading only!), where you can help feed the dolphins and practice their signs with them. The nonmember ticket price is steep—$225 per person—but think of those dolphins! And your new souvenir towel!

7. Cincinnati Zoo – Cincinnati, Ohio


The Cincinnati Zoo offers a bevy of special experiences—from hanging with red pandas and camels to feeding giraffes to their very special Junior Zookeeper option (yes, it’s heavy on the baby animals)—but their Elephant Extravaganza is a unique chance to meet the zoo’s four beloved elephants. Even better? After the talented My-Thai paints you a picture, you help give her a bubble bath. The extravaganza will set you back $500 per couple, but a portion of all proceeds will go to helping elephants in the wild.

8. Houston Zoo – Houston, Texas


Giraffes in general seem pretty open to accepting a bite from perfect strangers, and the Houston Zoo’s Masai giraffe family are no different. The zoo offers twice-daily feedings for just $5 per person (hey, lettuce isn’t free), depending on both “weather and giraffe participation.”

9. Detroit Zoo – Detroit, Michigan


The Detroit Zoo wins instant points for its fun experience names—Breakfast with the Butterflies!—but the hands-down winner is their Mingle with the Macaronis program that allows visitors to get cozy with penguins in their own habitat. For about an hour, you can learn about the Macaronis (and Rockhoppers and Kings), feed them, and watch them play. Not sold yet? You can take a whole group for $600, and that price includes—get ready for it—a visit to their incubation/nursery area.

10. National Zoo – Canberra, Australia 


Australia’s National Zoo in Canberra offers patrons the chance to get interactive with their punchily-titled “Meet a Cheetah” experience. The big cats, supposedly the “friendliest” of the bunch, will greet up to two patrons (plus one zookeeper!) during each highly sought-after 15-minute session. The zoo promises that participants (“meetahs”?) will have the chance to pet and play with the land speed champs. After your meet and greet is over, you can spend the rest of the day at the zoo proper, as the $175 per person fee also includes full access to the rest of the facilities. Go unwind with some penguins.

11. ZSL London Zoo – London, England

ZSL Facebook

If you really want to go all out, there’s nothing quite like the London Zoo’s Keeper for a Day program. You’ll spend the whole day with a friendly zookeeper host, doing the good (meeting giraffes, penguins, oh my!), the bad (wait, there’s nothing bad about this), and the ugly (fine, you have to help clean). It’s certainly not the cheapest interactive experience—it will cost you about £280 per person—but it’s probably the best.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

10 Juicy Facts About Sea Apples

They're both gorgeous and grotesque. Sea apples, a type of marine invertebrate, have dazzling purple, yellow, and blue color schemes streaking across their bodies. But some of their habits are rather R-rated. Here’s what you should know about these weird little creatures.


The world’s oceans are home to more than 1200 species of sea cucumber. Like sand dollars and starfish, sea cucumbers are echinoderms: brainless, spineless marine animals with skin-covered shells and a complex network of internal hydraulics that enables them to get around. Sea cucumbers can thrive in a range of oceanic habitats, from Arctic depths to tropical reefs. They're a fascinating group with colorful popular names, like the “burnt hot dog sea cucumber” (Holothuria edulis) and the sea pig (Scotoplanes globosa), a scavenger that’s been described as a “living vacuum cleaner.”


Sea apples have oval-shaped bodies and belong to the genus Pseudocolochirus and genus Paracacumaria. The animals are indigenous to the western Pacific, where they can be found shuffling across the ocean floor in shallow, coastal waters. Many different types are kept in captivity, but two species, Pseudocolochirus violaceus and Pseudocolochirus axiologus, have proven especially popular with aquarium hobbyists. Both species reside along the coastlines of Australia and Southeast Asia.


Sea cucumbers, the ocean's sanitation crew, eat by swallowing plankton, algae, and sandy detritus at one end of their bodies and then expelling clean, fresh sand out their other end. Sea apples use a different technique. A ring of mucus-covered tentacles around a sea apple's mouth snares floating bits of food, popping each bit into its mouth one at a time. In the process, the tentacles are covered with a fresh coat of sticky mucus, and the whole cycle repeats.


Sea apples' waving appendages can look delicious to predatory fish, so the echinoderms minimize the risk of attracting unwanted attention by doing most of their feeding at night. When those tentacles aren’t in use, they’re retracted into the body.


The rows of yellow protuberances running along the sides of this specimen are its feet. They allow sea apples to latch onto rocks and other hard surfaces while feeding. And if one of these feet gets severed, it can grow back.


Sea apples are poisonous, but a few marine freeloaders capitalize on this very quality. Some small fish have evolved to live inside the invertebrates' digestive tracts, mooching off the sea apples' meals and using their bodies for shelter. In a gross twist of evolution, fish gain entry through the back door, an orifice called the cloaca. In addition expelling waste, the cloaca absorbs fresh oxygen, meaning that sea apples/cucumbers essentially breathe through their anuses.


Most full-grown adult sea apples are around 3 to 8 inches long, but they can make themselves look twice as big if they need to escape a threat. By pulling extra water into their bodies, some can grow to the size of a volleyball, according to Advanced Aquarist. After puffing up, they can float on the current and away from danger. Some aquarists might mistake the robust display as a sign of optimum health, but it's usually a reaction to stress.


Sea apples use their vibrant appearance to broadcast that they’re packing a dangerous toxin. But to really scare off predators, they puke up some of their own innards. When an attacker gets too close, sea apples can expel various organs through their orifices, and some simultaneously unleash a cloud of the poison holothurin. In an aquarium, the holothurin doesn’t disperse as widely as it would in the sea, and it's been known to wipe out entire fish tanks.


These invertebrates reproduce sexually; females release eggs that are later fertilized by clouds of sperm emitted by the males. As many saltwater aquarium keepers know all too well, sea apple eggs are not suitable fish snacks—because they’re poisonous. Scientists have observed that, in Pseudocolochirus violaceus at least, the eggs develop into small, barrel-shaped larvae within two weeks of fertilization.


Syzgium grande is a coastal tree native to Southeast Asia whose informal name is "sea apple." When fully grown, they can stand more than 140 feet tall. Once a year, it produces attractive clusters of fuzzy white flowers and round green fruits, perhaps prompting its comparison to an apple tree.


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