As an animal lover, there is no better feeling than getting up close and personal with wildlife. Having been on safari a few years ago in South Africa, I could not have imagined a more hands on experience, so when I had the opportunity to visit the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium to get a sneak peak at some of their newest experiences, I knew I had to hit the road.
In the era of COVID-19, some people may be hesitant to visit an attraction which draws a large number of people, but the team at the Columbus Zoo makes you feel comfortable from start to finish. All guests are required to make online reservations prior to arrival, and once on the property, masks are highly recommended, although required for some attractions including the new Heart of Africa Savannah Experience.
After jumping into the back of a converted Land Rover, we head through a double set of gates, reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and are immediately greeted by a curious ostrich, which followed us around for the entire experience. Dozens of animals including zebra, giraffe, and gazelle roam freely in the massive habitat, which really does resemble an open savanna. After posting some photos of the experience, one Facebook friend questioned if we were actually still at the zoo.
The giraffe feeding drew the attention of a few of the ostrich who quickly gathered around our vehicle for their share of some lettuce. Even when on safari, I did not have the opportunity to come this close to giraffe, let alone feed these majestic animals. Not to be outdone though, the ostrich were quite entertaining and fought for our attention, ultimately sneaking into one of my selfies.
Not too far away is the Red Panda Experience where guests can venture into their habitat to learn more about the care and conservation of this endangered species all while having the chance to feed these absolutely adorable animals.
Next, we headed to the Behind the Marina Sea Lion Tour, where we got to see how the zoo staff train and care for these animals. The amount of love that is expressed is quickly realized as we watched how the trainers interacted. They even showed us how easily they give the sea lions their eye drops and keep up with medical care.
Adjacent to the marine exhibition is the brand-new Jack Hanna’s Animal Encounters Village. According to zoo staff, “the Village will serve as the physical representation of Jack’s educational philosophy and his genuine enthusiasm for connecting people and wildlife.” This ever-changing environment for diverse species, including sloths, African penguins, bat-eared foxes, tortoises, toucans, and cheetahs provides the opportunity to observe behavioral demonstrations with the animals, learn from Zoo educators and experience one-on-one animal encounters. “The goal of Animal Encounters Village is to continue Jack’s work in inspiring guests so that they gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world and are empowered to help make a difference for wildlife and wild places.”
Speaking of encounters, I could never have imagined what happened next. We met up with Suzi Rapp, Vice President of Animal Programs for the Columbus Zoo, and a close friend of Jack Hanna. Suzi told us we were going to meet the cheetah cubs. The two cubs were born through in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer into a surrogate mother. The births, the first of its kind, are the result of careful planning and innovative medical expertise through a partnership between the Columbus Zoo, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. The achievement at the Columbus Zoo brings the potential to help ensure the survival of cheetahs in their native range. Conservation scientists have long sought ways to boost the numbers and help maintain genetic diversity of the species. Yet, attempts to artificially inseminate cheetahs often have not been successful, with the last one occurring in 2003.
Suzi took us into the cheetah habitat to get a real personal experience with the cubs and their companion dogs. At first, the cubs were a bit hesitant to approach us, but after a minute or so, I was sitting on the grass as one of the cubs approached and began licking me. As an audible purr was heard, the other cub summoned up the courage to approach us as well. Before long we were all sitting on the grass playing with these incredible animals. It was truly an experience that we will never soon forget.
Click HERE for more information and to book your once-in-a-lifetime experience.