Zoos are a fantastical place for children. Peering through the enclosures at monkeys, lions and giraffes can be a seminal moment in a child’s life, one that leaves an impression and spurs the imagination, broadening their tiny worldview beyond Sesame Street and backyard forts. Zoos are also often the first instance in which a child sees conservation in action, an experience that helps build a foundation in which an appreciation for the natural world can grow. Leading this charge is the Paradise Coast’s own Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens.
Creating indelible memories since 1969 when animals became a permanent fixture within the exotic gardens planted in 1919, the Naples Zoo is a place of education, conservation and reflection that goes beyond its 43-acre footprint. Its mission, to continue the “legacy of delighting and informing guests, and to inspire conservation through innovative, intimate and memorable experiences,” speaks to what all zoos strive toward: protection of animals, both within their care and abroad.
As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Naples Zoo is at the forefront of conservation and animal care. Participating in research, field conservation, education, animal health initiatives and breeding programs [Species Survival Plans] outside of the wild, the zoo is a vital cog in the survival of endangered species like the Malayan tiger, South African lions, ring-tailed lemurs and white-handed gibbons, just to name a few.
With 90 species from all points of the globe, the Naples Zoo’s collection of exotic and endangered animals gives visitors a unique window into the lives lived by different species, the troubles they face in the wild and ways to help in survival efforts. This 43-acre home has become a leading proponent of animal conservation and preservation, and one of the Paradise Coast’s leading cultural venues, welcoming more than 350,000 visitors each year, espousing to each the importance of conservation.
This is the zoo’s purpose, from the animal ambassadors on exhibit, involvement in SSP programs, to research animal care in captivity as well as work in the field—everything imparts to conservation efforts to save species from the brink. The zoo as a moneymaking proposition is not a winning one, but the money raised through fundraising, admission and donations goes straight to the animals in their care and conservation efforts in the field.
A long proponent of conservation efforts in the field, the work the Naples Zoo targets and champions mirrors much of the animal ambassadors in their care. As a member of the Brazilian Ocelot Consortium, work done and lessons learned with the zoo’s resident ocelots is directly impacting the way South America is caring for their own both in captivity and in the wild, while also contributing to reforestation programs to the ocelots native range in Brazil. As a managing member of the Madagascar Fauna Group, the zoo helped contribute to the repatriation of black and white ruffed lemurs to the wild. Work with Panthera is helping preserve the sparse wild lion populations in Africa, while working closely with the Desert Lion Conservation Program, the zoo contributed with a monitoring campaign of these rare beauties. These are but a few of the conservation efforts the zoo is helping promote actively and monetarily in the field, the first line of defense for animals critically endangered and on the brink of extinction.
Each branch of the mission, conservation/research, animal care/exhibits and education all act as a leg of a tripod, each contributing to preserve and protect. But in the end, it all comes down to the people who walk through that gate to take a look at the tigers and monkeys. And the summer is the perfect time to explore the Naples Zoo with child in tow, with daily shows, feedings and animal encounters scheduled throughout the day. Below are a few of the highlights that should be a sure thing on the docket on your next trip to the zoo.
Get up close and personal with the world’s tallest animal at the just-opened Giraffe Feeding station at the Giraffe Preview Exhibit. This newly minted attraction is not only a way for visitors to experience the giraffe firsthand, but also an opportunity for guests to learn from docents who are on hand to answer any and all questions that may arise. Known as the skyscrapers of the Savanna, the herd of seven reticulated giraffes may seem imposing as they tower above, but as they reach in to grab the treat in your hand, “gentle giant” will be the only applicable term that springs to mind.
- Visit the hand-feeding station daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Treats cost $5.
All Aboard the Primate Express
The Primate Expedition Cruise embarks daily, taking guests around the island homes of monkeys, lemurs and apes. Free with admission, guests pile aboard pontoon boats for 15- to 20-minute cruises, allowing them to observe these primates and monkeys as they go about their daily routine with relatively minimal guest interaction. Narrated by the captain, the cruise is not only a great opportunity to get off your feet but educational too, with insights and interesting facts delivered as the boat meanders through the calm waters.
- Cruises run daily from 10 a.m. through 4:15 p.m.
- Free with zoo admission.
- Though they run throughout the day, the animals are busiest in early morning and late afternoon, so plan accordingly.
Visit Safari Canyon
The Naples Zoo’s large open-air theater, Safari Canyon, gives guests a chance to see some of the zoo’s interesting residences in an up-close, interactive setting. Shows include presentations with fosas, ocelots, tow-toed sloths, African crested porcupines [coincidently Africa’s largest rodents] and birds of prey. The shows not only introduce these animals to the audience in person, but also through multimedia presentations of the same animals in the wild, give guests an interesting perspective of how they live in the natural world as well as in captivity.
- Shows are scheduled at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily (times are subject to change, check schedule upon arrival) and are free with normal admission.
- Arrive early for fun trivia about the animals in the show, recent conservation efforts and fun facts about nature.
Meet the Keepers
The true unsung heroes of any zoo are its keepers. They ensure the health of the animals in their care, maintain the enclosures, and understand the subtle and sometimes inconspicuous cues and signs their animal display when anxious, in discomfort, or just plain happy. The mission of all zoos, when you get to the core, is to care for the animals, and the keepers are the frontline in maintaining a healthy and happy balance. So meeting these animal champions is a great opportunity to learn first-hand what it takes to keep these magnificent animals in a state of bliss, what they are like in the wild, and a few of the more interesting personality traits of the Naples Zoo residents.
The Meet the Keepers series runs throughout the day at select animal exhibits. Visitors will be able to observe the animals as the keepers encounter them with enrichment programs—feeding them treats, giving them toys and objects to play with (and destroy), and even showing the audience a trick or two—and the keepers will also discuss some of the conservation efforts happening in the field, specifically programs in which the zoo is actively involved. After the brief presentation, guests are encouraged to ask as many questions as they can think of during an open Q&A forum.
- Meet the Keepers schedule is subject to change daily (check scheduling on day of visit).
- Visitors can learn all about the following exhibits and animal ambassadors: fosas of Madagascar, cheetahs, giraffes at the Giraffe Preview Exhibit, African honey badgers, the animals at the African Oasis and Malayan tigers.
Slither on up to Snakes Alive
The oft misunderstood and reviled take center stage at Jungle Larry and Safari Jane’s Snakes Alive!, the Naples Zoo’s daily reptile talk and show. From venomous copperheads and cottonmouths to the world’s only poisonous lizard, the Gila monster, trained experts focus on different species of snakes and lizards as they slither, crawl and explore the intimate arena. For 30 minutes each day, a different species takes the stage allowing for the trainers to explain the beneficial roles each plays in their respective ecosystems and habitats. And the informal setting allows for plenty of interaction with the staff, with questions encouraged by guests.
- The reptiles come to stage at 1:45 p.m. daily. Time is subject to change; check with the visitor center on scheduling the day of the visit.
All You Can Eat Buffet
Florida’s apex predator gets its close-up at Alligator Bay. Set amid tropical palms and tranquil waters some truly powerful and prehistoric beasts lurk, just waiting to snatch a raw chicken leg out of a keeper’s hand. The Alligator Bay Feeding gives guests a rare opportunity to see alligators in action—a species that spends most of its time sunbathing—as they lunge and snap for a bite. As captivated visitors look on in amazement, keepers have the opportunity to dispel some of the myths that surround these magnificent animals, while also discussing conservation efforts happening in our own backyards.
- The Alligator Bay Feedings take place daily at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- The Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Admission is as follows: $19.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors, $12.95 for children (three through 12).
- For more information, call 239-262-5409 or visit napleszoo.com.
*All photos courtesy of the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens