A close encounter with a macaw at Cougar Mountain Zoo. Credit: April Chan
The Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah is conveniently located right off I-90 and features some breathtaking views of Lake Sammamish below. While it's a go-to destination for some Eastside families, it may be off the radar of families around the wider region. That's a shame.
On a recent day when I grew weary of coaxing my kids outside to play, we decided to make a visit to the zoo. It is true this zoo is on the smaller side and doesn't include all the amenities that larger regional zoos offer.
But it does have a secret weapon. As my kids watched and listened with interest as Cougar Mountain keepers and staff talked about different animals, it made me realize the extra-special resource of this zoo: its friendly, knowledgeable and accessible staff.
Cougar Mountain Zoo's aim is to educate visitors about the plight of the endangered animals in its care and to raise awareness of conservation efforts. It offers an extensive schedule of daily events to meet that purpose. From 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day, lectures and/or feedings are offered at half-hour increments throughout the zoo, and the small size of the zoo ensures that visitors can actually make it to all of the events without much hassle or exertion.
If your brood needs a little down time, there are some covered areas in the plaza to have a seat and enjoy a snack from home. Or venture over to the tracks library terrace and see how many animal prints you recognize.
If you're stumped about any animal or its characteristics, there are staff members and volunteers roaming the grounds constantly, helping to educate visitors about the animals, answering any questions and occasionally reminding folks not to feed the carnivores. Volunteers also walk around sometimes with items for kids to touch — we got to see up close how large and tough an emu egg shell is!
Where animals ought to live
These days, it's hard to visit a zoo and not think about where these animals came from, and whether it is fair that they are in cages. The zoo staff feels the same.
“No animals should be in captivity,” education curator Sasha Hendricks says. “If the world was perfect and they had enough space and opportunity in the world, I'd be okay with never having this job.”
The animals, which staff members call “ambassadors for their wild kin,” were acquired mostly from other zoological societies or conservation centers, says Hendricks. Animals that were born at the zoo, including Juanita the blue-throated macaw, or taken in as rescues, make up a small percentage of zoo residents.
During our visit, we felt very much that the staff not only knows their stuff about the animals but genuinely cares for them. Hendricks says it always makes her job worthwhile when a child tells her they are inspired to be a zookeeper when they grow up.
“I can genuinely see their interest and trying to come up with a question for me,” she says. “I try to give a little bit of guidance ... it's the purest form of wanting to protect these species, and I feel we have a future with these animals.”
The lack of souvenirs, snacks and play areas at this zoo might seem a disadvantage to some families. With my kids, ages 8 and 5, this pared-down experience actually worked in our favor. All my kids could engage with were the animals.The size of the zoo grounds also meant I heard no whining about being tired of walking.
The kids amused themselves watching various animals in the zoo's Magic Forest that were enjoying snacks fed to them by visitors. There were freshly cut yams and apples for sale for $2 a cup, or kids can plop two quarters into one of the many self-dispensing snack stations and get a handful of dry compressed alfalfa pellets to hand-feed or toss to the alpacas, deer, wallabies, emus and more. We laughed when one particularly picky alpaca shook its head when I offered yams, but happily nibbled the apples from my hand.
The carnivores at the zoo are not to be fed by the public, but we were able to watch a feeding of the two resident and very regal Bengal tigers. The kids were nonplussed when the keeper told us they were eating “bloodsicles,” made of blood, water and a few pieces of meat. Hey, it was a hot day and tigers need to keep cool, too!
We also enjoyed seeing how the keepers played a little scavenger hunt game with the cougars. Staff escorted them out of their outdoor habitat temporarily in order to place various pieces of meat in secret places, then let them back in. We got to watch the big cats sniff around to find their hidden treats.
Hendricks explained that the animals aren't forced to entertain guests but the treats are offered as incentives. In the wild, carnivores spend their days hunting and protecting their territory. Because the zoo takes away that stress, “they can get bored,” she says. If they're feeling anti-social, “the habitats all have areas for the animals to lay low.”
A surprising favorite for us was the Macaw Museum. Several of the colorful and sometimes noisy birds were allowed to roost on small perches in the open, allowing visitors up close and personal views of their beautiful plumes. Some smaller macaws and cockatoos are still housed in caged enclosures. The reason, explained Hendricks, is to keep them safe from predatory birds. All birds are brought inside when the zoo closes.
The bottom line
Cost: Admission to Cougar Mountain Zoo seems proportionally less than admission to larger zoos given its smaller size. We definitely spent less on add-ons here because of the lack of impulse buys other area zoos make all too visible to kids. There was no begging for Dippin' Dots, souvenir cups or face painting. Parking is free. As is the case with most museums and zoos, if you're planning on being a repeat visitor, a family membership makes everything much more cost-effective and invites more frequent, shorter visits.
Animal access: The animals in general are kept in closer proximity to the public (but still at a safe distance), allowing for fun feedings and interactions. We noted visitors, young and old — and with and without kids — trying to get their phones in position for the best macro shots of regal animals. If you would like a “Close Encounter” experience, Cougar Mountain Zoo offers several options. Note these likely require advance reservations and cost extra. Make sure to call ahead of your visit.
Play time: While Woodland Park Zoo and Point Defiance Zoo both feature play areas, there is no play area at Cougar Mountain Zoo. It does have a lot of metal bars and railings and these are very tempting for kids to climb. Similarly, some of the features in the Magic Forest are nearly irresistible for little human monkeys to scale, but signs are clearly posted not to climb on the bronze statues and rock formations. Caregivers may need to help enforce rules.
If you go...
Open hours: During most of the year, January through November, the zoo is open Wednesday–Sunday, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. In December, the zoo holds its popular annual Reindeer Festival and is open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Closed all major holidays. Find a detailed daily schedule of activities online.
Coming Soon: The zoo plans to open a new lemur house adjacent to the tiger exhibit by the end of the year.
Neat trivia: The zoo's oldest residents are Henrietta, a 48-year-old three-toed box turtle that isn't regularly on display but is part of the zoo's outreach efforts to visit schools; and Molu, a 46-year-old cockatoo.
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