Early summer and spring are perfect times to visit a zoo. It's not too hot or crowded, and the animals are at their active best. If your kids are begging for pandas, then the National Zoo in Washington is the place to go, but there are some places about an hour's drive from our area where kids can get a different kind of beastly experience.
The Metro Richmond Zoo has over 450 animals in a naturalistic setting, which is to say many more grassy paddocks than concrete enclosures. Children are encouraged to feed many of the animals -- the giraffes are especially friendly and can be petted. Not so friendly is the Bengal Tiger family whose regal splendor is best viewed through a telescope. Some of the bigger birds such as peacocks and ducks wander the grounds freely and are bound to delight youngsters. Little ones may also enjoy the petting zoo and animal nursery. There are also picnicking facilities available at this low-key zoo, located in the Chesterfield County countryside.
Maymont's Children's Farm and Wildlife Exhibit is also located in the Richmond area. This zoo places more emphasis on North American species and has a strong educational mission. Look here for hawks, elk, foxes and black bear.
They have just opened a wonderful aquarium exhibit featuring playful river otters, turtles, fish, and a beautiful 20-foot waterfall. Their Children's Farm has all the barnyard favorites: cows, rabbits, ducks, and sheep. Maymont is surrounded by beautiful gardens and easily accessed from I-95 in the City of Richmond. There are many other museums within only a few miles, so plan to make a day of it.
Children (and adults!) love to learn about animals whether up close and personal or in the pages of books. Before your adventure, check out these great books, software and videos to learn more about the animals and the zoos that keep them.
Curious George: Zoo Night and Other Animal Stories
When George accidentally frees animals from the zoo--it's absolute chaos!
Loose at the Zoo!
Meet the baby animals of the Washington National Zoo.
Signing Time! Volume 9: The Zoo Train
Singing and signing fun at the zoo. Learn the signs for your favorite zoo animals and ocean creatures. Signs include lion, tiger, zebra, giraffe, monkey, rhinoceros, dolphin, seal, penguin, crab, whale, and more!
The Wiggles: Wiggle Safari
Steve Irwin invites The Wiggles to his Australian zoo to learn about the animals.
Keepers of the Kingdom: The New American Zoo by Michael Nichols
Beautiful photographs of the more spacious zoos and essays from well-regarded zookeepers on breeding endangered species and new ways to educate the public. Extensive bibliography.
The Rhino with Glued on Shoes: And Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients
A Collection of heart-warming true stories from zoo vets and their unusual, exotic patients.
We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Ree
Author Benjamin Ree relocates with his wife and two kids to operate a zoo with over 200 exotic animals.
At the Zoo by Dawn Sirett
Invites young readers to move their fingers along trails on each page of the book to discover facts about zoo animals. A board book.
Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell
Which animal would you choose at the zoo? A storytime favorite.
Down by the Station by Will Hillenbrand
In this version of a familiar song, baby animals ride to the children's zoo on the zoo train.
Going to the Zoo by Tom Paxton
It's the well-loved children's song in picture book format! Go to the zoo, zoo, zoo again and again with this silly favorite.
Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman
At closing time, a lonely gorilla plucks the keys from the zookeeper's pocket. The ape and his many animal friends quietly follow the tired man home to snuggle up for a good night's sleep. A perfect bedtime read.
Goose Goes to the Zoo by Laura Wall
Best friends, Sophie and Goose, go to the zoo to find a friend for Goose when Goose is away at school.
When We Went to the Zoo by Jan Ormerod
Sometimes the most fascinating animals aren't in the zoo at all! A family enjoys their time at the zoo but discovers that the wonders of nature are truly everywhere.
Bridge to the Wild: Behind the Scenes at the Zoo by Caitlin O'Connell
A narrative non-fiction following a day in the life of a zoo curator with beautiful photographs.
How to Draw 101 Animals: Easy Step-By-Step Drawing by Dan Green
Draw zoo animals with just a few easy steps.
How Machines Work: Zoo Break! by David Macauley
An interactive book that introduces simple machines, such as levers, gears, planes, and pulleys.
Zoo Hideout: Hidden Picture Puzzles by Jill Kalz (Freading eBook)
Can you find all the zoo animals?