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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 

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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
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

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

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