Where can you gaze into the eyes of Siberian tigers, watch the antics of a red panda or the graceful dance of a colorful peacock, admire the perfect stillness of a sloth or trace the movements of turtles, or be wowed by the size of a bison - all in one day? At Beardsley Zoo, of course. Listed at the top of our 120 Things to Do With Kids in Connecticut, our state's only zoological park has been harboring endangered species, promoting conservation, and delighting visitors of all ages for nearly 100 years.
Though Connecticut is surrounded by some grand zoos in New York City and Massachusetts, Beardsley's compact size makes it super manageable, especially if visiting with young children; you are assured close viewing of more than 120 species, without having to hurriedly pick and choose based on time constraints. Children also have opportunities for play, whizzing around on the nostalgia-inducing carousel, or savoring ice cream in the Peacock Cafe.
Even the tiniest visitors love learning and getting close to the animals at the zoo.
The first feathered resident to greet the crowds is the Andean condor located near the main entrance, and measuring their own wingspan at a display located next to this exhibit is a tradition for children who visit frequently (consider it an alternative growth chart!).
Next comes the Wolf Observation Learning Facility, one of my family's favorite spots. Take a seat and linger a bit, watching the wolves pacing, digging, hydrating, or perhaps even hunting (on the day we visited, one of the red wolves caught a bird in flight, putting on quite a display of power, agility, and shrewdness). Zoos are fun places for children not only because they allow for free roaming without worry about "inside" voices, but because they offer a special platform for environmental awareness, language development, and increased knowledge about the species who share the world with us. The Wolf Observation area is a great spot for bonding and discussing such issues.
The three-legged ocelot (who lost a limb when attacked as a kitten) is evidence of the successful rehabilitation and conservation work at the zoo.
Where you venture next is your choice (or the kids will gladly decide), since the zoo layout is a loop that incorporates all the exhibits. The Rainforest Building houses a few species of small monkeys, including marmosets, tamarins, and Howler; frogs, turtles, a Boa constrictor that demands respect, graceful Scarlet Ibis, and the beloved female ocelot named Kuma who delights and inspires visitors with her three-legged agility are also found here.
Rochan, the Red Panda housed outside the Rainforest Building, is awaiting the construction of his new habitat.
On the Pampas Plains you will find maned wolves, a Giant Anteater always on the job, peccaries, and rhea. The kids will enjoy the always-entertaining prairie dogs digging tunnels nearby, especially since they can pop their heads into the middle of the action via plexiglass observation tubes.
In Alligator Alley you can watch the antics of the energetic river otters, the stoic presence of the Bald Eagles, stare back at the alligator, and keep up with a variety of birds and fowl frolicking in their natural habitats.
Across the walkway are arguably the stars of the show: the Canada Lynx (two fast-growing kittens - named Penny and Ruby - were born in April and are a lot of fun to watch, especially when engaged in sibling play), two Amur leopards received from the Copenhagen Zoo, and two stunning Siberian tigers, who eat nearly 8,400 pounds of meat every year.
Always relaxed, this two-toed sloth is on the lookout for visitors, and you'll find plenty of stuffed replicas in the fun Zoo Gift Shop.
Despite its wild side, Beardsley also incorporates some gentler, hay-eating creatures in its New England Farmyard exhibits. The miniature horses are cuteness overload, the goats are always looking for a friendly hand to scratch their heads, and the sheep and pigs get quite vocal about greeting visitors. The pond is also a child favorite, allowing walkers-by to witness interaction between the birds, and perhaps spot a coveted colorful feather fallen on the ground.
Don't end your visit to the zoo without smelling the roses growing in the Sculpture Garden, strolling through the Victorian greenhouse, and completing a craft or two in the Research Station. Keep on the lookout for children's events throughout the year, including Zoo Tots, Teddy Bear Fest, Breakfast with Frosty and Friends (2017 dates not yet announced), and daily feedings of otters; you will no doubt be back for more animal adventures.
The zoo provides educational programs throughout the year. Photo courtesy of the author.
Before you know it, you will have spent the day in the Himalayas, Belize, Paraguay, and Brazil...all without leaving our home state.
Know Before You Go:
- The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Hours of operation for the Rainforest Building are 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
- Parking is free.
- Bathrooms are located in the Peacock Cafe and outside the building (including infant changing stations).
- The grounds are stroller and wheelchair accessible.
- Visitors may bring in drinks and food (though food services and snacks are available on site), and enjoy lunch at one of the many picnic tables.
Photo Credit: All photos courtesy of Beardsley Zoo, unless otherwise stated.