While it may be hard to tear the kids away from the amusement park rides and midway attractions at Hershey Park, near Harrisburg, Penna., don’t overlook ZooAmerica’s adjacent North American Wildlife Park. Originally the zoo had larger acreage and a comprehensive collection of world animals, but styles of zookeeping have changed a lot since Milton Hershey first thought of a zoo to house animals presented to him as gifts.
With the amusement park expanding and the animals needing more space, more tailored care, and more programs suited to keep them both physically and mentally healthy, a more focused program made sense. The downsizing of the zoo has let the staff concentrate on much more completely on comprehensive animal welfare. And North America has a lot!
You can visit the zoo during the day directly from within Hersey Park or do just the zoo (separate entrance). You can also participate in by-reservation-only early morning or evening behind-the scenes tours. There are also special tours for photographers. Because we were traveling with three children, the likelihood of mobilizing everyone early enough for the morning program seemed unlikely—and kind of anti-vacation—so we chose the after-dark tour. Good choice!
The After-Hours Tour
Two zookeepers accompanied our group of six and one other couple and showed us much the regular visitor does not see. The wolves were howling as we followed the zoo’s paths guided only by flashlights. The zookeepers knew, of course, which species and individuals were likely to be active at night. They showed us where the animals’ food is prepared, explained what goes into each different diet, and we saw where they are cared for if they are sick—if they need surgery, they go to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center (just like you or me), to be operated on by a team of veterinarians (not).
We fed river otters, a sloe-eyed alligator, and a huge tortoise. In the education center, we “petted” a baby alligator and held a young owl. That was quite a thrill! The highlight was the opportunity to hand-feed bears (grapes on a skewer held through the bars), which the bears delicately removed. These real-life Hershey bears—outdoors in daytime—come into their cages to sleep at night, so kids and bears had bars between them, plus, of course, seven hovering adults to make sure little fingers stayed well away. These were black bears so he isn’t terribly visible in the photo.
The zoo staff was terrific about explaining animal behavior. They obviously delighted in the children’s—and adults’—fascination with their work. These days, would-be zookeepers generally follow one of two main educational pathways: zoology, as you would expect, and psychology. Modern zookeeping emphasizes creating interesting environments and novel challenges for captive animals.
An unforgettable experience!
Your Travel Circles
I provide this information to help you make the most of your trips to “destination cities” by also seeing attractions in a reasonable driving distance. I’ve had too many business trips when I never got out of the meeting hotel!
- If you’re visiting Harrisburg, Hershey is less than a half-hour (14.5 miles) away.
If you’re visiting Philadelphia, Hershey is less than two hours (95 miles) away.