Close your eyes and picture your perfect day at the zoo. Well, actually, don’t close your eyes – keep them open so you can keep reading this article. But do take a minute to envision walking the outdoor paths, taking in all the exotic animals, learning about new species, and exploring different habitats from around the world. Does what you saw take place in winter? Probably not — but maybe it’s time to rethink your idea of perfect zoo weather. Roger Williams Park Zoo, in Providence, Rhode Island, is a completely different experience in the cold season.
Winter Wonder Days
When the temperature drops, so does attendance at the zoo, which is a mostly outdoor attraction. That’s why it offers Winter Wonder Days, with half-price admission, through the end of February. Granted, some of the regular warm-weather programs don’t happen, and access to some attractions is limited, like the Drip Drop Garden in Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard play area. But in the middle of winter, who wants to get soaking wet or sit through an outdoor performance? And who wouldn’twant to save money — and have better views of the exhibits during an uncrowded time at New England’s most visited zoo?
With the exception of particularly cold-sensitive animals, such as the Chilean flamingos, almost all of the zoo’s residents are on display in winter. Though they have sheltered enclosures where they can warm up, it’s still common to see even the warmest-weather animals out and about, like African elephants, Masai giraffes, plains zebras, and cheetahs. A lot of the zoo animals even thrive in the colder temperatures: bald eagles, red wolves, bison, and harbor seals. In the exhibit dubbed Marco Polo’s Adventure Trek, which traces the famed explorer’s routes, you’ll find animals that have adapted to harsh desert and mountain conditions, like snow leopards, red pandas, moon bears, and dromedaries. Red-crowned cranes perform their courtship dances during the winter months. At the Alex and Ani Farmyard, there are lots of barnyard animals you can feed and pet, including miniature goats, sheep and alpacas.
Faces of the Rainforest
Maybe the best reason to visit Roger Williams Park Zoo in the winter is that, at least for a few minutes, you’ll remember what summer feels like. Just after Thanksgiving last year, the zoo debuted a massive new exhibit, Faces of the Rainforest, which lets visitors step into a re-creation of an Amazon rainforest. Among the 100 species of indigenous plants, such as avocado trees and arabica coffee plants, there are 50 species of animals. Some of them are behind glass (no, you can’t actually pet any of the monkeys), but many others roam freely. Cuckoos, neon-hued toucans, and bright-blue macaws fly around the open-air aviary, while two-toed sloths find cozy places to curl up and rest. Thankfully, the anaconda, the pink-toed tarantula, and the two species of poison frogs are confined, as is the spiny porcupine. Southern black howler monkeys, golden lion tamarins, and Bolivian gray titi monkeys (which partner for life and often sit with their mates with their tails intertwined) are all in enclosures, too.
The critters you’ll really want to see, though, are the giant South American river otters, which are playful, high-energy animals zipping through the water who will likely stop long enough to inspect you. The otters are the only ones of their kind in New England: Only eight North American zoos have giant river otters, and those zoos are all in southern climates.
The new exhibit has a strong conservation message to it: It’s called Faces of the Rainforest to help people understand that their choices, even down to what kind of coffee they buy, impact the rainforest’s plant and animal life. The gift shop outside the exhibit sells only products that help the rainforest, and the zoo has started implementing more eco-friendly options at its restaurants, such as offering the option of grass-fed beef for its hamburgers.
In February, the zoo is also offering a host of school vacation activities, ranging from afternoon programming to a full week of Zoo Camp. If, like me, you’d prefer the undivided attention of the mini goats, maybe choose a different week to visit. Just don’t wait until the weather warms up.