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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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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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