As the flowers show their faces, so do a host of animal species — some right in your backyard (whether you want them there or not). Little animal lovers can meet and interact with a host of critters from right here in Texas and all around the world at the Dallas Zoo, of course, but also at these local farms, aquariums and wildlife centers.
Turtles, stingrays and sharks, oh my! Kids of all ages get up-close views of sea creatures from six different ocean and freshwater ecosystems at Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park. The display tanks are at stroller level so even toddlers see every detail of a jellyfish’s tentacles. At the Touch Tank, kids safely shake claws — er, hands — with Atlantic animals including lobsters, starfish and horseshoe crabs. During daily animal shows at 2:30pm, kids watch handlers feed piranhas, eels, sharks or alligators (which animals you see depends on their feeding schedules). End the tour with a visit to Stingray Bay where kids pet gentle stingrays and even feed them — stingray food is $2 per two pieces.
Cost: $8 adults; $6 ages 3–11; free for ages 2 and younger. Dallas Zoo members receive a $2 discount.
When: Open daily 9am–4:30pm
Where: 1462 First Ave., Dallas, 469/554-7340
An overlooked gem across the street from Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, Leonhardt Lagoon is a watery wildlife preserve for plants and critters native to Texas. A red, sea monster-like sculpture allows you to walk out over the lagoon for a closer look at the creatures that call it home. Bring corn or sunflower seeds to feed the ducks and try to spot snapping turtles and sunfish guarding their underwater nests in the shallow water.
When: Open daily during Fair Park hours: 8am–10pm
Where: 1121 First Ave., Dallas, 214/426-3400
Children have 7.5 acres of ground to cover at Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park. It all begins in the Butterfly House and Insectarium where every day at noon, gardeners release newly hatched pupae (aka brand-new butterflies). Climb the multistory house to see the released butterflies flit and flutter all around you — but be careful not to tread on the quail who live there too. While you’re inside, watch through a plexiglass viewing area as worker bees fly outdoors and return with pollen and nectar to the working honeybee hive. Then, take a short jaunt outside through the gardens to the Snakes of Texas exhibit. Learn to identify the 16 snakes by noticing the patterns on their backs. Arrive by 11am on the first and second Saturdays of the month for guided Butterfly House or Garden Explorers tours.
Cost: $8 adults; $4 ages 3–11; free for ages 2 and younger
When: Open daily 10am–5pm
Where: Fair Park Gate 6, 3601 Martin Luther King Junior Blvd., Dallas, 214/428-7476
See what lurks in, around and above the multi-level rainforest at the Dallas World Aquarium. Follow the path through the watery ecosystems of South Africa, Borneo, the South American rainforest, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific Ocean. On your journey through the eight-story Mundo Maya exhibit, see American flamingos, a black-and-white hawk-eagle and a 400,000-gallon walk-through sinkhole filled with sharks and rays. Along the way, attend an animal talk to learn about sloths in South America or jaguar conservation at the Temple of the Jaguar. Also, don’t let the kiddos miss scheduled feedings for the sharks, otters and penguins (grab a feeding schedule for exact times and locations).
Cost: $20.95 adults; $14.95 ages 2–12; free for ages 2 and younger
When: Open daily 9am–5pm
Where: 1801 N. Griffin St., Dallas, 214/720-2224
Goats, pigs and bunnies are waiting for love and attention at the Gentle Zoo in Forney. In fact, it’s so gentle, kids can enter the pens to pet and spoon-feed the goats. Purchase a $2 bag of feed and spread the love to the farm’s other animals such as sheep, llamas and emus. If it’s a warm day, let toddlers engage a turtle in a crawling race outdoors or, on cooler days, pet the critters inside with the help of staff. Kids will see a ferret, bearded dragon and chinchilla on display too. When hunger calls, head to the picnic area to enjoy a BYO lunch then visit exotic animals like the red kangaroo or South American coatimundi, a member of the raccoon family. Before leaving, take a tractor train ride through the 10-acre zoo, get lost in the maze and pay an extra $2 to bounce on the giant jumping pillow.
Cost: $6 general admission; free for babies 12 months and younger
When: Tuesday–Friday 9:30am–2pm, Saturday 9:30am–5pm, Sunday 11am–5pm
Where: 12600 FM 2932, Forney, 469/834-2857
At Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, 100 miles east of Dallas (and so worth the trip), kids prowl with exotic cats. During half-mile guided walking tours Wednesday–Saturday, staff members teach visitors about the refuge’s 40 fierce felines including rescued tigers, lions, pumas, bobcats and a Geoffroy’s cat, an endangered small breed from South America. The final tour begins at 4pm. On Mondays and Tuesdays, grab a map and storybook to take your pride on a self-guided tour, then enjoy a picnic from home at one of the tables near the entrance.
Cost: $18 adults; $14 ages 4–12; free for ages 3 and younger
When: Open daily 10am–5pm
Where: 17552 FM 14, Tyler, 903/858-1008
Pack binoculars, bug spray and the jogging stroller for a wild romp through Arbor Hills Nature Preserve in Plano. Families explore a total of 6 miles of paved and unpaved trails through three eco-regions: blackland prairie, riparian forest and upland forest. Challenge kiddos to spot turtles, egrets, rabbits and more along the trek. If you’re there past sunset, listen for owls hooting in the trees. Before setting out, download the interpretive map to learn more about the sights and sounds along the way.
When: Open daily 5am–11pm
Where: 6701 W. Parker Road, Plano, 972/941-7000
Kids can’t feed the wildlife at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, but they can get face to face with protected species, animal ambassadors and even native critters. Every Friday in April, younger kids gather for a nature-themed story time with live creatures such as snakes and turtles. After, examine additional snake species from the Lone Star state in the indoor exhibit, watch busy bees through a plexiglass window, or take a stroll outside to the Animals of the World exhibit, where formerly abandoned animals like white-tailed deer, lemurs and the white-nosed coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon). Then watch pollinators migrate from petal to petal at the Butterfly Garden. If the kids stay quiet-ish as they explore the sanctuary’s trails, they may see a wild armadillo up close.
Cost: $10 adults; $7 ages 3–12; free for ages 2 and younger
When: Tuesday–Saturday 9am–5pm, Sunday 1–5pm
Where: 1 Nature Place, McKinney, 972/562-5566
In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue and Educational Center is home to 76 rescued cats — and we’re not talking tabbies and calicos, but lions, cougars, tigers, lynx, bobcats, leopards, cheetahs and an ocelot. On weekends, when the park is open to the public, stroll among the exotic cats’ habitats on a self-guided tour, or reserve a 90-minute guided tour for up to 10 people any day of the week. On Sundays, stick around for the nighttime tour when zookeepers pass out pre-dinner bones to the cats (for ages 7 and older). Be sure to ask about In-Sync’s non-feline residents too — three goats, one horse, a dog and lemurs Loki and Mitzy. Register one week in advance for a guided tour. If you’re planning a group outing, call ahead to find out about feeding demonstrations and campouts.
Cost: General admission is free but a donation of $12 per adult and $8 for ages 4–12 is recommended; free for ages 3 and younger. For guided tours, the recommended donation is $14 per adult and $12 per child.
When: Saturday and Sunday 11am–6pm or by appointment
Where: 3430 Skyview Drive, Wylie, 972/442-6888
See Longhorns at Preston Trails Petting Farm in Gunter, just north of Celina along the historic Shawnee Trail. During spring months, it’s basically a petting zoo with lots of animals. Purchase a $3 cup of feed then step inside the open-air barn. Over 50 animals, including baby goats, sheep, chickens and an Angus cow nibble food from tiny hands through wire-fenced pens. Visit again in the fall when hay mazes, hayrides and pumpkin patches become part of the experience.
When: Monday–Sunday 8am–8pm
Where: 15102 State Highway 289, Gunter, 972/382-4995
Kids ages 8 and older learn a lot about llamas during Llama Walks (you get to walk the llamas) at ShangriLlama, a private ranch in Parker. Meet Barack O’Llama, Dalai Llama and their friends during these walks that begin at 11am Saturday and Sunday mornings and last at least 2 1/2 hours. Learn how these friendly mammals communicate, how fast they run and which plants are safe for them to eat. Walks are canceled on rainy days or scorchers, but you can still meet and greet the llamas during 60-minute indoor Llama Lessons most Saturdays at 9am for ages 3 and older. Check the online calendar for times, which vary according to the weather, then reserve a spot online.
Cost: $50 per person for Llama Walks. Purchase Llama Lessons through Groupon from $12 per person; free for ages 3 and younger.
When: Saturday and Sunday by reservation only
Where: Parker, 972/632-9385
Head to Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch near Lake Ray Roberts on Saturdays and Sundays for a slew of animal encounters. Starting at 10:30am, ranch hands teach visitors about ring-tailed lemurs, kangaroos, black bears and reptiles during educational animal presentations — kids get a chance to pet and interact with some of the subjects too. Then catch the Safari Tram Ride that runs about every 30 minutes for a tour of the three back pastures where kids spot draft horses, zebras, emu, deer, camels and hybrid breeds zedonk and zorse. Grab a bag of $3 feed for more animal meetups in the petting zoo. Then feed your crew at the Bears Den pizzeria where rescued black bears Barnaby and Bailey join you for lunch just 5 feet away from the dining deck. Budget two hours for the entire ranch experience.
Cost: $12 adults; $10 ages 3–12; free for ages 2 and younger
When: Saturday and Sunday 10am–5pm
Where: 11670 Massey Road, Pilot Point, 940/686-4600