Lions and Tigers and More -- Oh My!

Reggie was face to face with a hungry grizzly bear foraging for food. Her brother Matt kept his eye on the den of wolves. Neither was a bit scared.

That's because we were watching the grizzly and the wolves at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, a spectacular 600-plus-acre home for dozens of Pacific Northwest animals overseen by the Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma, Wash.

Our visit gave the kids a chance to get up close and personal with some of the critters and creatures they either couldn't find or were glad to avoid in nearby Mt. Rainier National Park: great horned owls, black bears, cougars and caribou.

Wherever families are traveling, I'm convinced, regional zoos are a must-see. They provide the opportunity to experience a place from the perspective of the animals who call it home. They also give kids a chance to meet children who live in that part of the country or the world. Here's a money-saving tip for zoo-going away from home: Joining your local zoo allows your family to visit the majority of others around the country for free.

We went through a tunnel at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum to see what animals do in the heat of the day in the desert. At Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the most visited in the country, we toured a five-acre replica of a Midwestern farmyard. (The Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the last free U.S. zoos. Call 312-742-2000. Call the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson at 520-883-2702.)

Breezing through the exhibits of African or Asian animals at the world-famous San Diego Zoo or Bronx Zoo may give kids a head start on their next social studies project. See the snow leopard in his natural Himalayan Highlands Habitat at the Bronx Zoo. (Call 718-220-5197.) In San Diego, don't miss the new Polar Bear Plunge. Call 619-231-1515. (Kids visit free during October.)

Don't think zoos are just for the summer or spring. There are plenty of indoor exhibits and far fewer visitors during the cold months.

"You might have the whole place to yourself," says Tom Naiman, the Bronx Zoo's assistant curator for education. Don't force the kids to see too much in one day. No matter how much they love animals, they'll get tired and hungry. They may be ready to leave before you feel you've gotten your money's worth.

``The biggest mistake parents make at zoos is running from exhibit to exhibit. Then they don't really end up seeing anything,'' says Naiman, who oversees school programs. Call ahead to the education department to find out about new exhibits or special workshops.

For oh-so-bored teens and pre-teens who think they're too old for animal talk, Naiman suggests focusing the kids' attention on animal behavior. Ask them how they would have built the exhibit differently. They can check out the zoo first via the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Web site at www.aza.org.

Allen Nyhuis, author of ``The Zoo Book: A Guide to America's Best'' (Carousel Press; $14.95), offers these tips for keeping the younger crowd enthusiastic rather than cranky:

-- Stop at the zoo shop for a batch of animal postcards for each preschooler. The children ``search'' for their animals as they make their way through the zoo.

-- Give each grade-schooler a sheet of lined paper and pencil on which they write the alphabet, one letter per line. They will look for animals to write down for each letter. At the end of the day, the child with the most animals wins.

``You can't force kids to like wild animals better than roller coasters,'' says Nyhuis. Springing for a stuffed zoo animal might help. So could Zoo Books, magazines usually available at zoos. Each book is devoted to one animal and all are filled with weird and wonderful facts kids like -- a polar bear, for example, can jump over a 20-foot hole.

Here are some other zoos around the country guaranteed to send the kids home full of knowledge about the animals of the region:

-- Meet the rare white alligators in the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit at New Orleans' Audubon Zoo and see what life was like here a century ago. See armadillos, snakes and opossum and visit an antique boatyard. The kids can try crawfish pie -- but they'll probably like the pralines better. (Call 504-861-2537 and ask about the Louisiana Swamp Festival in October.)

-- Visit bobcats, red wolves and doves at the North Carolina Zoological Park's 200-acre North American exhibit. It includes Cypress Swamp, a recreation of the Sonoran Desert and a farm area where children can pet the animals and pick fruit. Streamside allows the kids to follow a North Carolina stream from the mountains to the coast. The kids also might run into Mother Earth or a fortuneteller whose cards predict the future of plants and animals. (Call the zoo in Asheboro at 910-879-7000.)

-- Crawl into a wolf den at the six-acre Northern Trail exhibit at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo that takes visitors to cold areas of the north where they can see bears, elk, river otters and bald eagles. Don't miss the orangutans swinging through the trees in the Trail of Vines. (Call the zoo at 206-684-4800.)

Don't forget your camera.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's new books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and a parents' guide to vacation fun, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz(AT)aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate Document ID: og082596

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