Most children have been out of school for just a week or two, but cries of “I’m bored!” and “There’s nothing to do!” have already started.
This time of year, when things get a little wild, the house feels like a zoo and the kids are acting like animals, take them to the real thing.
Regional zoos, animal enrichment centers and wildlife conservation sites, all within driving distance, make for an educational, family-friendly day out.
More than 100 years old and spanning more than 40 acres, the Utica Zoo offers a large-scale zoo experience with a focus on animal-specific education.
“We’re open year-round and during the summer, we’re much more busy,” Mark Simon, Utica Zoo marketing coordinator, said. “Generally, we average around 100,000 to 105,000 visitors per year … but our main focus is education and conservation.”
“A lot of times, people would never get the chance to see these animals in the wild, so this gives people the opportunity to not only see them, but also learn something about them,” he said. “We try to bring education to everything we do and … tell animals’ individual stories. By (doing so), we can help people lose preconceived notions they might have about zoos and that is really something that sets us apart. We don’t just put animals in an exhibit; we want you to know everything about that animal — their name, their history, their idiosyncrasies, because then you can really connect with that animal and understand its plight.”
With education as its mission, Simon said, the zoo at 1 Utica Zoo Way, is “great for everyone.”
“We receive visitors from all over the country,” he said. “One of our more popular things is the red panda encounter, where you can actually go inside the exhibit and feed them from your hand, so people come from all over for that, but most come from New York state, the Northeast and Canada.”
The zoo, Simon said, features “over 200 animals from six out of the seven continents.”
Additional visitor favorites, he said, are the zoo’s African lions, three siblings born on site; two-hump camels; California sea lions; “uncommon” striped hyenas (as opposed to the more typical spotted variety); Mexican gray wolves; white-handed Gibbons; spider monkeys; Chinese alligators; white-necked cranes; lemurs; Canadian lynx; and warty pigs.
“There really is a wide variety of animals,” he said.
The ideal time for a visit, Simon said, depends on preference.
“During the summer, we have summer zoo camps earlier in the day, so if ... you want it to be less crowded, later on in the day is usually better.”
“Around 1 and 2 (p.m.), our animals tend to take afternoon naps, especially during the summer months,” he said. “They’re going to be much more active in the morning and evening.”
Beginning July 12, Simon said, the zoo will remain open until 7 p.m. on Fridays, something he called “a big one” for working families. And, on July 29 and Aug. 26, admission will be free from 4 to 7 p.m.
The zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., with concessions available and picnics welcome. Admission is $4.75 for children 3 through 12 and $8 for visitors 13 through 61. Discounted admission of $6.75 is available to seniors, military personnel and college students.
At the Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo in Rome, a longstanding facility is getting a new lease on life.
Husband-and-wife animal lovers Christopher and Rebecca Stedman, a zoologist and veterinary technician, purchased the 5135 Rome-New London Road property last spring, but the center began more than 40 years ago. Through the change in ownership, Rebecca Stedman said, Fort Rickey’s focus has remained on providing children with hands-on exploration with animals.
“I would say kids 2 to 9 probably get the most out of the experience … and we see a couple hundred people a day,” she said. “Teenagers love it as well, but we’re geared more toward those (younger) age groups ... though we do plan to improve and add more features to make it an experience for all ages.”
The zoo’s most popular area, Stedman said, is its “maternity ward,” where visitors can sit and play with baby goats three times each day.
“Our deer area, where they can walk right in and feed them, is another big draw,” she said. “And we have an area with a big ball pit, so that’s exciting for little kids, and a giant pillow bounce. There’s also a water balloon game so you can cool off if it gets hot.”
Stedman said daily educational presentations featuring the zoo’s porcupines, owls, snakes, lemurs and otters are also highlights, though visitors interested in specific presentations should check the zoo Facebook page for times. The zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Stedman, who worked at the zoo as a teenager, said, since opening in May, she’s been heartened by visitors’ response.
“We felt like we were meant to be here and now we’re just hammering out all this work that needs to be done and people are seeing improvements already,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support.”
Saturday, July 6, Stedman said, the zoo is hosting a summer kickoff event.
“We’re hoping that lets everyone know we’re here and all about having fun,” she said. Additional upcoming events, Stedman said, will include themed Disney character and pirate days.
Stedman said, while weekends are busiest and Tuesday and Wednesday typically the slowest days, the zoo is meant to be mellow.
“It’s more low-key and hands-on, one-on-one with staff,” she said. “It’s not to the level where you’re just passing through; we like to have conversations with people and give them a personalized experience.”
“It’s peaceful and more like a park setting than a zoo that has lots of foot traffic,” Stedman said. “You’re not going to see a gift shop around every corner pulling at the pockets, because we’re just not set up like that, it’s more family-friendly.”
The zoo is stroller accessible and picnickers are welcome, she said, though there is a “really nice concessions stand” on site. The average family visit, she said, is between two and three hours. Admission is $8.25 for kids, $10.25 for adults and children under 2 are admitted free.
For more information, find “Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo” on Facebook or call 315-336-1930.
For an even quieter but no less wild day, plan a trip to Wolf Mountain Nature Center.
The 65-acre hilltop sanctuary at 562 Hopkins Crandall Road in Smyrna features gray wolves, eastern coyotes and arctic foxes.
Caretaker Pam Mennis said the nonprofit center, founded in 2006 by her partner, Will Pryor, endeavors to remove the stigma surrounding wolves through up-close education in a relaxing environment.
“Our license is to educate the public and study wolf behavior,” she said. “When you go to the zoo, you’re going to see animals (that exist in) the wild, whereas wolves, coyotes and arctic foxes are all native to the U.S. But because of fear, people misunderstand them, so we’re here to explain what’s really going on with wolves.”
“It’s a very tranquil setting to get away, unwind and see and learn about wolves at the same time,” Mennis said. Recent visitors, she said, have especially enjoyed the center’s three new wolf pups.
Though New York state regulations prohibit contact with the wolves, she said, visitors can come within 4 feet.
Mennis said the center, which receives about 10,000 visitors annually, welcomes “all ages.”
“We’ve had homeschooler, preschool and younger groups come out and do different activities like hikes and programs in our tipi village,” she said. “I just took a tour out with a 7-year-old and people in their 70s, so we have all ages.”
The average visit, according to thewolfmountainnaturecenter.org, is two hours without picnicking. Outside food, Mennis said, is permitted.
“We’ve had a lot of family trips and we invite people to bring their own coolers and we have hibachi grills,” she said. “They’ll look at the animals, take their time, visit the classroom, which has a kids’ touch table, and have lunch.”
“We’re more of a preserve sanctuary, so we’re not open all the time, but that’s how we want it,” Mennis said.
Mennis said that, while the animals “look more majestic in winter,” May through September is the center’s busiest time.
July through August, the center is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays, noon to 3 on Saturdays and noon to 4 on Sundays. Admission is $5 and visitors under 5 are admitted free. The center does not accept credit or debit cards.
For more information, including details on the center’s July 28 “Wolves & Watermelons” event or its Aug. 17 “Werewolves on Wolf Mountain” outdoor movie night, visit thewolfmountainnaturecenter.org, find “Wolf Mountain Nature Center” on Facebook or call 607-627-6784.