Zoo Cool

Visit the animals this winter and you’ll find special holiday activities along with indoor and outdoor fun.

Even though there’s a chill in the air and the flakes are flying, it’s still a great day to head to the zoo. Good thing Ohio has some of the best zoos in the nation, and its three biggest are open year round. So, what are you waiting for? The koalas are calling in Cleveland, the polar bears are beckoning in Columbus and Cincinnati’s snow monkeys are standing by.

Climate Change
You might be stunned to see the words “Cleveland” and “tropical” in the same sentence. That is, of course, unless you’ve visited the tropical RainForest at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

On Nov. 19, the zoo will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its 2-acre, two-level homage to the jungles of Africa, Asia and the Americas. While the temperatures hover around freezing outside, more than 6,000 tropical plants and 600-plus animals thrive in the hot and moist environment created by the zoo to increase public awareness of the rain forest habitat. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, green-eyed tree frogs and fruit bats are among the creatures you can expect to encounter in this un-Cleveland-like climate. 

While it’s always nice to get inside and warm up, the zoo is home to some species that actually enjoy northern Ohio winters. Zoo spokesman Joe Yachanin says many of the animals in the park’s Northern Trek — where tigers, bears, wolves and reindeer roam — perk up when the mercury drops and snow starts to cover the ground.

If you prefer to stay out of the elements as much as possible, the zoo has a free heated shuttle that will move you between indoor venues. You can check out the aforementioned koalas in the GumLeaf hideout, the aptly named Golden Candle flowers in the Public Greenhouse and gorillas and sharks in the Primate, Cat and Aquatics Building.

One of the best days to visit the Cleveland Zoo is Thanksgiving. For starters, admission is free and, as a bonus, you’ll get to see the animals enjoy their favorite holiday treats during special feeding exhibitions.

Don’t worry if you can’t make it out on Thanksgiving. From now through March 2013, admission is discounted to $8.25 for adults and $5.25 for children ages 2 to 11. Little ones younger than 2 always get in for free. clemetzoo.com

March of the Penguins
While you might prefer to hibernate like a bear throughout January and February, it’s prime time for penguins and their cold-weather friends at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. In fact, the zoo has developed special programs to allow you to share in the fun.

To help entice you out of your cave, zoo admission is half price ($7.50 for adults and $5 for children 2-12 and seniors older than 62) throughout the first two months of the new year. And every Saturday and Sunday in January and February, you can get a front row seat to see those penguins marching in a parade, watch the polar bears feasting on icicles filled with fish and experience elephants enjoying fruity ice blocks. Snow monkeys and sea lions are also in the lineup, as well as encounters with some interesting insects and feathered lorikeets.

If you’ve ever wondered how zoos devise and manage menus for all of their inhabitants, the Cincinnati Zoo is offering a look inside its kitchen throughout November and December. The “Zoo Gourmet” is an educational program that gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how some of the biggest beasts and smallest critters on earth are fed using ingredients from around the world. This is your chance to find out what bearcats dine on for breakfast, armadillos eat for dinner and manatees enjoy for dessert. It’s $11 per session and you can register on the zoo’s website. cincinnatizoo.org

Birthday Girl
One of the most famous zoo residents in the world will celebrate her 56th birthday on Dec. 22. It’s Colo, the first gorilla born in human care and the oldest at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Colo, her zoo family and friends will mark the occasion with a special cake at 11:15 a.m. If you get there early enough, rumor has it there will be a slice for you, too.

After you help Colo blow out the candles, why not head out for the Polar Frontier? After all, the animals there feel right at home during the winter months. Opened in May 2009, it’s one of the newest and biggest exhibits at the Columbus Zoo. If you’re lucky, you just might see the zoo’s two polar bears — Aurora and Anana — taking a cool dip in their 167,000-gallon pool. Nearby, you can get a glimpse of two Alaskan brown bears — named Brutus and Buckeye in a nod to nearby Ohio State University — and four arctic foxes frolicking in their enclosures.

Winter is also a good time to go behind the scenes at the Columbus Zoo, where two 45-minute tours are offered for $20 per person. The first is a look inside the zoo’s veterinary hospital, where you can see how animals large and small are nursed back to health. The second gives you a close-up view of the inner workings of Discovery Reef Aquarium, a 90,000-gallon small ocean habitat that’s home to clownfish, stingrays, bonnethead sharks and other colorful creatures of the deep.