I’m going to confess upfront that until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know that the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore existed. This small zoo has the disadvantage to be sandwiched between the large and historic Philadephia Zoo (which was the first zoo in the United States) and the National Zoo in Washington, DC (which of course has the lure of the pandas). For this reason I think that it may often be overlooked by people who don’t live in or around Baltimore.
But boy am I sorry for my ignorance! Even with its proximity to these other more well-known zoos, the Maryland Zoo is worth a visit as we discovered at the Breakfast with the Polar Bears event in late March. In fact our time there was easily one of the best zoo experiences we’ve ever had. Not only did it feel like we were exploring our own private zoo but just about every single animal was alert and moving around. I don’t think there was a single enclosure where we didn’t get a good view of the animals, and in several of them we got a closer view than I’ve ever experienced. In addition, volunteers were stationed around the zoo, and to a person they were friendly and knowledgeable, able to tell us not only general facts about the animals we were looking at but specific information about their names and personal histories. It was the kind of intimate, kid-friendly outing that makes for some really great memories.
For breakfast with the animal events, which the zoo holds regularly, you are invited to arrive between 8:30 and 10 and are taken by a tram from the main entrance to the zoo over to the Village Green where the food is served (there are also bathrooms here). The breakfast itself is a hot buffet with eggs, French toast sticks, bacon, and hash browns and is filling enough to get your through a long morning of exploring. When children arrive, they are given a gift – in our case adorable stuffed polar bears and an informational booklet that also contained coloring pages and other activities. Volunteers have stations set up outside to explain different things about the bears including what they eat and play with.
Once we had eaten, we made our way over to the nearby Polar Bear Watch area where thanks to a recent feeding, the youngest polar bear was putting on quite a show – it was one of the better zoo photo ops I’ve ever seen. A keeper was on hand to answer questions and talk about the ages and habits of the bears and everyone is invited to snap as many pictures as they liked.
After a good long visit with the polar bears, as well as the arctic foxes and ravens that also inhabit the polar bear enclosure, we were free to wander around the rest of the zoo. It was still early enough that the zoo wasn’t officially open yet, and we had the place virtually to ourselves. We started in the African Journey area, making our way over to the Chimpanzee Forest.
We probably spent a half an hour watching the chimps play, eat, and groom each other. One of the zoo’s Animal Ambassadors (as the volunteers are called) introduced us to the alpha male, who was lounging with his feet up against the glass, and also pointed out a pregnant female that we hadn’t noticed. She knew the animals by name and was able to tell us where they came from and also what their personalities are like. The boys also loved the display of golden tree frogs in a nearby case and were able to locate every single one in the terrarium.
As for the rest of the African animals, well, the pictures above speak for themselves – rarely have I ever seen so many animals playing and roaming about. The giraffes circled their enclosure (which again, we had all to ourselves) and poked their heads over as if to say hello. The boys were especially delighted to see one stealing food from the poor okapi who could only stand there with its much shorter neck! The elephants were being led out for the day and we watched as they stretched and played. Inside a netted aviary, the boys got up close with ducks and spoonbills. Nearby the male and female lions played together like kittens, the cheetah strolled past us nonchalantly, and the rhinoceros, zebra, penguins, warthog, and leopard were all equally alert and visible.
Once we had seen everything from kudus to giant tortoises, we made our way over to the other main area of the zoo, the Maryland Wilderness, which includes a variety of different environments, all of them native to the state. There’s a marsh where children can explore (and sit in a giant version of) native bird nests. Giant lily pads invite the kids to jump and play, much like the otters who put on a show for us. In the cave we saw snakes and bats – all as alert as the other animals we had seen. Later the boys relished the chance to see box turtles and to slide out of a giant tree.
Then it was onto the farmyard where in addition to brushing the goats, we saw cows, chickens, and donkeys. I was surprised how much time the boys both wanted to spend in here. They especially liked the chance to compare their own height to that of actual horses in the “Which horse would you be?” display.
We took the tram back to the main entrance, and were sent on our way by the black-tailed prairie dogs, who just like all of the animals seemed determined to show us their best side, popping out of their holes and posing for photos in the cool drizzle. It was an appropriate send off to what had been a very fun morning.
Breakfast with the animals is a great way to get into the zoo early and to have a little one-on-one time with the animals before the crowds arrive. The next couple of zoo breakfasts have sold out, but starting in June 2012 and going through the beginning of November, there are 11 additional opportunities to dine with the elephants, rhinos, penguins, and other animals. Tickets are $55 for zoo members and $65 for nonmembers; children under two are free, but still require a reserved ticket. The breakfasts are held rain or shine.
And even if you don’t make it for one of the breakfast events, I highly recommend a visit to this gem of a zoo (which has free parking!). Arrive right when it opens at 10 a.m. and maybe like we did you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals. The zoo is located in the middle of the charming Druid Hill Park, which looks like a lovely place to walk around and maybe enjoy a picnic after your zoo visit if the day happens to be a nice one. Of note also: There is a carousel and a small train ride in the zoo, neither of which were running when we were there.
Many thanks to the Maryland Zoo for giving us tickets to dine with the polar bears. We will definitely be back!