Go Wild at Arizona Zoos and Aquariums

By: Nora Burba Trulsson

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December 4, 2012

See plenty of lions and tigers and bears - oh, my! - at Arizona's zoos.

About the author

Nora Burba Trulsson

Nora Burba Trulsson

Nora Burba Trulsson is a long-time Arizona resident and a freelance writer specializing in travel, food, lifestyle, architecture and design topics. Her articles have appeared in Sunset, Arizona Highways, Vegas Seven, Houzz.com, Valley Guide, Scottsdale Magazine, United Airlines Hemispheres, Westjet's Up!, Renovation Style, Beautiful Homes and other publications and websites. She can be reached through www.noraburbatrulsson.com.

Throughout the state, wildlife parks, aquariums and animal sanctuaries offer glimpses into the world’s animal kingdom – from Arizona animals to zebras, sea horses to elephants. What’s more, these facilities offer both family entertainment and conservation education.

Here are just a few places around the state where you can talk to the animals.

The Animals of Greater Phoenix

In the heart of Arizona’s urban center, Phoenix Zoo is one of the largest nonprofit zoos in the country, with more than 1,100 animals on 125 acres.

The zoo, in Phoenix’ Papago Park, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012 with the birth of two zebra foals, as well as a new giraffe.

Trails meander past African savanna and Arizona desert habitats; other displays include orangutan and elephant habitats, a stingray bay and an area where rhinos roam.

Kids love the farm critters at the zoo’s Harmony Farm, while young and old alike enjoy camel rides, pedal boats and a safari train. You won’t go hungry – six snack stands and cafés provide treats. And make sure to plan some time to browse the gift shops.

Tempe’s Sea Life Arizona, a 26,000-square-foot, kid-friendly aquarium, is home to more than 5,000 sea creatures – including native Arizona fish – in 30 display tanks grouped into 12 habitat zones.

Kids and adults alike ooh and aah at the seahorse display, the interactive rock pool, the ray exhibit and in the Ocean Tunnel, a 360-degree viewing experience that makes you feel like you’re walking through the ocean. Recent arrivals to the aquarium include two rescued sea turtles.

Prescott’s Wild Side

In North Central Arizona, Prescott’s Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary uses its compact, 10-acre site on Willow Lake to its advantage, allowing you to get up-close and personal with resident animals.

Look for many animals from Arizona, including mountain lion, black bear and Mexican wolves. Kids love the creepiness of the Tarantula Grotto; arachnophobics might prefer the interactive Wallaby Walk-About or the animal encounter area. A new reptile house will open soon.

Specialty Wildlife Parks in Northern Arizona

Northern Arizona’s Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park in Window Rock occupies a unique niche – founded in 1977, it is the only American Indian-owned and -operated zoo in the country.

Nearly all of its 100 animals are native to the Navajo Nation, and interpretation throughout the 11-acre facility gives you background on the animals as well as their importance to the Navajo culture.

Wander past mammals such as elk and spotted skunk, look for Gila monsters and snakes, and admire the native gardens.

At Bearizona, located in the pines of Williams, you switch roles with the animals. You’re safely contained in your car with a GPS narrative device as you drive a three-mile loop through open-air habitats where black bears, wolves, bison and more roam.

In another area, you stroll amid habitats containing smaller animals, such as bear cubs and beavers, or catch a raptor show. There’s also gift shop with snack bar.

Opened in 2010, the 160-acre facility and has plans for future expansions.

Valentine, a small community in Northern Arizona, is home to Keepers of the Wild Nature Park, a nonprofit sanctuary for some 175 animals, ranging from lizards to lions, that were abused, neglected, abandoned, retired or seized by law enforcement.

Visitors can walk trails past their habitats, but your best bet is to take a safari tour, during which your guide will give you the animal’s back stories, like how Millie, a Bengal tiger, escaped being sold to a hunting facility.

Open since 1995, the 175-acre sanctuary has a small gift shop that also sells light snacks.

Have a Wild Time in Tucson

In Southern Arizona, one day is almost not enough time to explore Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a 98-acre zoo and botanical garden opened in 1952 to showcase the flora and fauna of the desert that straddles Arizona and Mexico.

Two miles of pathways loop you past some 230 animal and bird species and planted areas representing different desert life zones. Two restaurants, two gift shops and an art gallery also vie for attention. Walk through the buzzing hummingbird aviary, or check out the daily Animal Keeper interaction program.

This winter in 2013, the museum will open its new Warden Aquarium, which explores creatures of Arizona’s rivers and Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

At Reid Park Zoo, elephants are the star attractions. The new Expedition Tanzania exhibit at the 24-acre Tucson zoo houses five elephants and lets you see how keepers train and care for the pachyderms.

Tucked into the middle of town, the zoo has been a favorite with local families since its opening in 1965.

Wander paths to find Giraffe Encounters, where you can feed the curious creatures; catch a ride on the zoo train; or have lunch at The Zoofari Café. During warm weather, kids flock to Kenya Get Wet, a splashy play area.

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