It's All Happening At The Zoo

Good thing butterflies don't mind noisy kids. There's an orange butterfly on a first-grader's shoe! There's a blue one on a classmate's finger! The excited children can't contain themselves, pointing and jabbering, as nearly 1,000 of the delicate, brightly hued creatures, oblivious to the ruckus they've sparked, flit and fly everywhere.

Welcome to the Bronx Zoo's award-winning Butterfly Zone, the largest seasonal butterfly exhibit anywhere and one of the zoo's most popular. Despite the crowds inside the giant 170-foot-long net caterpillar that houses the butterflies and moths, the kids from my daughter Melanie's school aren't anxious to leave. They're too busy trying to identify all the species from the pictures in the color brochure they got as they entered. There's a black and yellow striped Zebra Longwing! There's a green Luna Moth! Look at that orange Monarch!

Finally, we shepherd them from the giant caterpillar into the maze that tests their butterfly survival skills. A wrong turn means a predator got them; the correct turn leads to the next life phase. They ``fly'' through the adjacent butterfly garden full of flowers and plants like lilac and spearmint that attract them.

Zoos, I think while watching the kids explore, should be included in every traveling family's itinerary this summer. Not only are they a welcome respite from museums and historic sites, but there's a chance for the kids to run and holler and see something unique, like the Butterfly Zone. Zoos are increasingly interactive and a lot cheaper than a day at a theme park. Many, in fact, will extend free admission if you're a member of your local zoo. Allen Nyhuis' ``Zoo Book'' offers the rundown on scores of zoos around the country and abroad. (It's $14.95 from Carousel Press. Call (800) 990-9FUN to order.) You can also visit the American Zoo Association's Web site at www.aza.org and link to more than 100 zoo Web sites around the country, allowing the kids to plan ahead of time.

But too often, zoo officials say they're overlooked completely by traveling families who figure they can take the kids to the zoo at home, not realizing how much exhibits vary. Zoos, for their part, may not have the budget to advertise their attractions out of the area. ``We're less than 10 minutes from Universal Studios, but I'm not sure it dawns on families to come over here,'' says the Los Angeles Zoo's Gilda Franklin. Even the Bronx Zoo, the country's largest urban zoo and celebrating its centennial this year, counts few tourists among the two million visitors each year that have made it the leading family attraction for those who live in the New York metropolitan area.

I could see immediately why generations of New Yorkers so love this place -- full of everything from the strutting penguins to the huge bats and naked mole rats in the pitch-black World of Darkness to the family of gorillas whose antics made everyone laugh. ``They were so entertaining the kids could have watched them all afternoon,'' said Pam Grushkin, one of the moms with our group. (Admission is free to the Bronx Zoo on Wednesdays; otherwise $7.75 for adults and $4 for children, plus $6 parking. Call (718) 367-1010 or visit the Web site at www.wcs.org. Elsewhere this summer, you can:

-- Make faces at the 13 Chimps of the Mahale Mountains in their own one-acre camp at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, complete with trees, branches to swing on and even a waterfall and stream. Soon, kids will be able to sit on a similar make-believe, hollowed log to peer at the chimps on the other side of the glass partition. The exhibit is designed to look like an abandoned logging camp in Tanzania's mountains, a natural habitat for chimps. Admission is $8.25 for adults and $3.25 for children. Call (213) 666-4650 or access www.lazoo.org.

-- Slide down a see-through chute through a pool of otters or feed little parrots, luring them to land on your hand at the St. Louis Zoo's new Emerson Electric Children's Zoo. Younger kids especially will like the ``Just Like Me'' play area where they can imitate the animals, hopping through water geysers, swinging on a jungle vine or climbing a giant spider web. Admission to the St. Louis Zoo is free; admission to the Children's Zoo is free from 9-10 a.m and $3 the rest of the day. Call (314) 781-0900 or www.stlzoo.org.

-- Get up close and personal with American alligators in the new ``Wonderful Wetlands'' exhibit at Zoo Atlanta that shows you how plants, animals and other wildlife are connected and depend on each other. Walk over a big wooden bridge and you'll feel like you're in the Georgia swamp, with alligators, turtles, mosquito fish and dragonflies. Admission is $9 for adults and $5.50 for children over 3. Call (404) 624-5600 or visit the Web site at www.zooatlanta.org.

Growing numbers of zoos, like Zoo Atlanta, have exhibits about the animals and plants from their region. The New Orleans Audubon Zoo, for example, has a special Louisiana Swamp Exhibit; the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz., focuses on desert life (did you know a cactus is a condo for desert animals?), while the Texas Zoo in Victoria exhibits 200 birds and animals native to the Lone Star State. After a visit to one of these zoos, the kids are sure to appreciate what makes the region you're touring different from home.

Save a hotel bill and spend the night with the animals. Many zoos, the Bronx Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo among them, offer zoo sleep-over programs to give families a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo and the nocturnal animals that live there.

See you at the gorilla house.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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