Northern and Central New York have incredible zoo destinations, filled with family-friendly fun. You might even learn something about your favorite animals along the way!

Zoo NY, Watertown

In Watertown, you can find Zoo NY nestled among the trees at the top of Thompson Park. The zoo, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this August, features only animals that are currently or once were native to New York state. Zoo spokesman Josh Baughn said that education plays a central role to its mission.

“We’re not a traditional zoo,” he said. “We don’t consider ourselves to be a concrete jungle, as some zoos may seem to other folks. Our facility is very concerned with ensuring education happens, that we’re helping teach families and young kids about New York’s wildlife.”

Mr. Baughn said Zoo NY has a very open, spacious and natural-feeling campus, and suggested that families set aside at least a few hours for a trip if they want to see every exhibit at a comfortable pace.

“Early in the morning in the summertime is best, you’re probably going to see more of the animals,” he said. “Just like us when it’s warm out, we’re trying to find shade and stay cool, all our critters have fur coats and they’re trying to do the same.”

Mr. Baughn said some of the zoo’s most popular exhibits are the North American river otters, and the elk yard, which has a family of five elk that visitors can occasionally feed. Mr. Baughn said the zoo’s mountain lion, Ninja, is another popular attraction.

Visitors can enjoy a snack from the café in the main guest services building, and there’s plenty of seating scattered throughout the zoo where people can take a quick break. The entire facility is wheelchair friendly as well.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks are required in every indoor space in the zoo, although when outside and at least six feet away from other patrons, visitors can take of their masks. While visitors are able to buy admission tickets online, Mr. Baughn said you can also purchase tickets at the admissions window, and he does not expect they will usually hit the occupancy limit.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse

Just an hour or so down Interstate 81, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse is another family-friendly attraction that mixes fun and learning. On 43 acres of land next to Syracuse’s Burnet Park, the zoo hosts about 700 animals in a wide variety of exhibits.

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo is one of 240 zoos in the world to be accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). The coveted accreditation, which is only given after a rigorous examination of nearly every aspect of a zoo, from its facilities to staffing and animal care protocols, means that the Rosamond Gifford Zoo is entrusted with the care of a number of rare, endangered species that cannot be found at other facilities.

“There is a huge emphasis on our education and conservation missions,” said zoo director Ted Fox. “AZA facilities are expected to contribute to wildlife conservation and to inspire people to actively support wildlife and nature conservation through our education programs, events and the information we share with visitors and the public.”

According to Mr. Fox, some of the most popular exhibits are the Helga Beck Asian Elephant Preserve, the Penguin Coast, and the Zaile and Bob Linn Amur Leopard Woodland and Primate Park.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the zoo is currently operating on a reservations-only system, and some exhibits have been closed temporarily to reduce crowding and preserve social distancing. When the facility is fully open and operating on a walk-in basis, visitors can expect their tour to take about three hours. With the facilities closed and visitors limited, visits can take around two hours, although guests can stay in the zoo until closure if they wish.

During their visit, guests can grab a bite to eat at the Courtyard Café, which is open on weekends, or bring in their own snacks, provided they do not contain alcohol. The zoo’s main restaurant, the Jungle Café, is currently closed for renovations, but will reopen this summer with a new menu.

Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester

Another AZA-accredited facility is within just hours of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. Along the Genesee River in Rochester, animal enthusiasts can find the Seneca Park Zoo. Built by Frederick Olmsted, whose son John Charles Omstead designed Watertown’s Thompson Park, the Seneca Park Zoo has offered New Yorkers the opportunity to see and learn about rare animals since 1893.

The zoo hosts a wide variety of exhibits, from wolves and lions to millipedes and rare fish. In 2018, the facility opened an African exhibit called Animals of the Savannah, with giraffes, zebras, a white rhinos and even naked mole rats.

“From the many different animal species to see, educational opportunities and special events and programs we continually offer throughout the year, there is always something to do or see for guests,” said zoo spokesperson Donato DiRenzo.

Mr. DiRenzo suggested that visitors set aside between an hour to an hour and a half to see the entire zoo, but he would suggest even more time for families who want to learn as much as they can about the animals. Visitors can grab lunch at one of the zoo’s two restaurants, the Eagle’s Landing Café and Crater Canteen during the summer.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. DiRenzo said the zoo requires that visitors buy timed-entry tickets online before they visit, to help control crowds and keep the occupancy levels low.

Fort Ricky Discovery Zoo, Rome

In Rome, families can find the Fort Rickey Discovery Zoo, a petting zoo that focuses on fostering a love and respect for animals in children from young age. Rebecca Stedman, one of the zoo’s owners, said there are plenty of opportunities for families and their children to engage with animals and learn from the zoo’s animal keepers.

“From hand feeding the deer, to holding the baby goats, petting the porcupine and having a large snake draped around your shoulders, the hands-on learning experiences are great for all ages,” she said. “Animal presentations occur throughout the day, so the learning opportunities are plentiful here too.”

Mrs. Stedman said they plan to add themed days, where families can visit the zoo in costume and get a discount on admission.

She suggested visitors set aside between two or three hours to visit and fully experience the zoo, and said that guests should check their online animal presentation schedule to see when their favorite animals will be available to meet. Families can grab a snack from the gift shop for the time being, until the zoo’s Wild Creatures Playland and concession stand is able to reopen.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, visitors will be asked to wear masks when indoors at the zoo, but a majority of the facility is outdoors and social distancing is very easy to maintain, Mrs. Stedman said.

No matter where you are in upstate New York, a fun-filled day at the zoo is only a few miles away, and each one offers a unique, educational experience that everyone is sure to enjoy.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

I write about north country politics, Jefferson County and the northern shoreline towns of Lyme, Cape Vincent, Clayton and Alexandria Bay

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