Alterna-zoos: Four local zoos allow close-up critter connections
Want to watch animals — without fences? Whether you’d like to pet a kangaroo, hold a rosy boa, feed a reindeer or ride into the wilderness, you can interact with animals at several Northwest zoos.
When Ray and Joey Strom of the Outback Kangaroo Farm near Arlington met their first baby kangaroo 20 years ago, they fell in love, took the baby home and bought a mob (herd) the following year. Now they sell kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos to zoos and private owners, and their business has become a cross between a working farm and an exotic petting zoo. Ray leads visitors on tours through the animal pens, stopping to let people see the ringtailed lemurs, offer bread to the kangaroos, admire the ostriches and emus from a safe distance, and feed pellets to the llamas. If there are any baby kangaroos, Ray or his wife, Joey, will bring one out to pet and cuddle. But be warned: If you cuddle a baby kangaroo, you might never want to put it down.
The Reptile Zoo in Monroe doesn’t have any kangaroos, but who says a snake can’t be cuddly? Visitors can find out by asking to hold a ball python, a rosy boa or a corn snake. For an additional $5 fee, you can pose holding an actual alligator (a small one), a Burmese python or an eastern indigo. You’ll also enjoy the outdoor Tortoise Yard, where the museum’s tortoises spend their summer days. On a warm day, you’ll see two big sulcata tortoises, a variety of midsize tortoises and baby sulcatas. (You can pet the tortoises, but don’t grab their faces or ride on their backs.)
Not all the animals are for touching, of course – don’t get your fingers too close to the enormous alligator snapping turtle, rescued by zoo owner Scott Peterson from a soup pot long ago. The zoo also exhibits an albino alligator, a 5-foot-long water monitor lizard, a two-headed turtle and examples of the world’s 10 deadliest snakes (all devenomized).
At the Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah, you can hand-feed vending-machine pellets to mule deer and alpacas. You can’t stroke the dandelion-tuft feathers on the crowned crane’s head or rub the reindeers’ fuzzy antlers, but you can toss them food pellets. If you want to get closer, you can pay extra for the Tiger Tunnel Experience. Visitors stand outside the young tigers’ exhibit and place their hands on the perforated steel wall to feel its fur whenever a tiger wanders by ($48 for a group of six).
The zoo’s two grown tigers live in a new habitat with a huge rock mound, caves and a pond; you can’t get close, but you can take lots of photos. Instead of signs, the zoo has educated docents to provide information. Invite curious children to ask exactly what they want to know: The docents are eager to answer.
You won’t pat any animals at Northwest Trek. Instead, you enter their habitat, riding a tram through wetlands, meadows and forests. Four hundred and thirty-five acres of the 723-acre complex form habitat for native Northwest herd animals, including caribou, moose and bighorn sheep. Roll past a herd of elk or peer at mountain goats foraging below your window. (You’ll be glad to have a tram wall between you and North America’s biggest land animal, the bison.) After the ride, check out Northwest Trek’s more conventional exhibits, which include bears, cougars and foxes. In the Wetlands exhibit, you can peek inside a beaver den, and see animals you won’t see anywhere else around here, including skunks, badgers and wolverines.
If children get tired, duck into the Cheney Discovery Center. Here children can touch animal fur, try on costumes and compare heights with a full-sized moose poster. The center also holds Northwest Trek’s smallest animals, such as a Pacific giant salamander with its frilly gills, diving beetles that carry bubbles for air and bees working behind glass (beetles and bees are seasonal). Watch the opening and closing times at Northwest Trek: Trams run on a schedule, and certain exhibits close early.
Whether you want to get up close and personal with unusual animals or admire them from a safe distance, these zoos will introduce you to wildlife in ways you — and your kids — will never forget.
Loralee Leavitt is a freelance writer and the creator of Candy Experiments website.
Outback Kangaroo Farm
Located 2 miles east of Arlington on Highway 530. Open Wednesdays–Sundays from March 1 to Oct. 30. 360-403-7474.
Located 1 mile east of Monroe on Highway 2. Open daily, 360-805-5300.
Cougar Mountain Zoo
19525 S.E. 54th St., Issaquah. Open Wednesdays–Sundays, January through November. 425-391-5508.
Located on Highway 161 in Eatonville. Open Fridays-Sundays before March 18; open daily March 19–Oct. 3. 360-832-6117.