14 Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

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What’s cuter than your kids? Your kids interacting with animals, that’s what! Lucky for your photo-taking addiction, the Washington, D.C. area offers plenty of opportunities to get your fill of adorable. Whether you want to see your kids feed a baby goat a bottle, go nose to nose with a dolphin or get tickled by a butterfly flapping its wings on their arm, we have the places for you. Here are 14 animal encounters to check out.

Photo: Smithsonian National Zoo

Tried and True

Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Sure, you can look at animals from afar at D.C.’s famous zoo, but on the Kids’ Farm, you can look and touch. There are cows, alpacas, hogs, donkeys, goats, chickens and fish. Of course, how willing they are to get up close and personal at any given time is up to, well, the animals.

Cost: Free
Where: 3001 Connecticut Ave., NW 
When: 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (5 p.m. Oct. 1 to March 14)
Online: nationalzoo.si.edu

Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium
While you’re picking up hiking info, brochures and maps, and learning about the park’s flora and fauna, check out the live turtles, fish, snakes and beehive. There’s also a bird observation deck and water garden. Bonus: Stop by the Rock Creek Horse Center for a look at the animals or to take riding lessons, which are open to children and adults based on weight requirements.

Cost: Free
Where: 5200 Glover Rd., NW
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday
Online: nps.gov

Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Walk through an indoor garden teeming with colorful butterflies, flowers and plants. The types of butterflies on display include banded orange, bat wing and Luna moth, Mexican purplewing and monarch. Check out the museum’s other – and free – exhibits while you’re here, especially Q?rius jr, a discovery room that puts little hands in touch with fossils, skulls, shells and minerals.

Cost: $6/adults; $5/children 2 to 12; group rates available
Where: 5200 Glover Rd., NW
When: 10:15 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Online: naturalhistory.si.edu

Photo: Nini T. via Yelp

County Offerings

Wings of Fancy Live Butterfly and Caterpillar Exhibit
Located at Brookside Gardens, the exhibit is home to hundreds of butterflies from North America, Costa Rica, Africa and Asia. “Visitors can learn about their amazing metamorphosis, the important role butterflies play in having healthy ecosystems, and how to ensure these beautiful insects thrive in our own gardens,” according to the website. Note: Strollers aren’t allowed in the exhibit, although it is wheelchair-accessible.

Cost: $8/ages 13 and up; $5/ages 3 to 12, free/2 and under
Where: 1500 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., daily from May through mid-September
Online: old.montgomeryparks.org

Frying Pan Farm Park
More Fairfax County nature centers follow, but this one deserves its own listing because it offers up-close looks at horses, cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits and other animals as part of the Kidwell Farm. Try your hand at milking a cow or attend a Putting the Animals to Bed event to learn how farm animals get ready to snooze. Bonus: There’s a wagon ride and carousel available for nominal fees.

Cost: Free
Where: 2709 West Ox Rd. (Herndon, Va)
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Online: fairfaxcounty.gov

Meadowside Nature Center
Exhibits here include the Raptor Walkway, which houses injured, unreleasable birds of prey such as an American bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, barred owl and turkey vulture. Or look for fish and migratory birds at Lake Frank.

Cost: Some programs have fees
Where: 5100 Meadowside Ln. (Rockville, Md)
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Online: montgomeryparks.org

Jerome Buddie Ford Nature Center
More than 30 animals live at the center – and more in the 50-acre onsite park – giving kiddos and grown-ups the chance to see turtles, snakes, lizards and toads. There’s also the MicroEYE Interactive Exhibit, which gives visitors a change to magnify items by two to 40 times and see the results on an HD TV screen.

Cost: Free
Where: 5750 Sanger Ave. (Alexandria, Va)
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 1 p.m.-5 p.m., Sunday in April through October; closed Monday and Tuesday
Online: alexandriava.gov

Fairfax County nature centers
The county’s six nature centers offer myriad nature programs, including many that give even the littlest kiddos a chance to reach out and touch wildlife under the watchful eye of a trained expert. Hidden Oaks Nature Center, for example, offers programs such as Animal Pajama Party ($6 for county residents, $8 for outsiders), while Hidden Pond has live animal displays in the building.

Cost: Some programs have fees
Where: See website for locations
When: See website for times
Online: fairfaxcounty.gov

Potomac Overlook Regional Park
Events here include feeding Northern Water Snakes; animal encounters at Wednesday Wonders, during which children ages 2 through 5 can hear a story, see a live animal and make a craft; and feeding kingsnakes and box turtles.

Cost: Programs have fees
Where: 2845 N. Marcey Rd. (Arlington, Va)
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 1 p.m.-5 p.m., Sundays; closed Mondays
Online: novaparks.com

Photo: National Aquarium

Something Fishy

Dolphin Encounter at the National Aquarium
Michael Phelps may have raced a (simulated) shark, but if you’re 8 or older, you can pal around with a real dolphin. Spend two hours learning how aquarium workers care for the mammals and interact with them yourself. The experience includes a souvenir T-shirt – and major bragging rights.

Cost: $225; $195 for aquarium members
Where:  501 E. Pratt St. (Baltimore, Md)
When: See website for dates and times
Online: aqua.org

Glen Echo Park Aquarium
The best part of this small aquarium inside Glen Echo Park is the touch tank, where experts are constantly introducing its inhabitants to anyone who will listen. Watch a horseshoe crab enjoy a snack, find out why Chesapeake blue crabs are blue, coax a giant sea snail out of its shell, and be mesmerized by fish and turtles gliding around their tanks.

Cost: $6; free/24 months and younger
Where: 7300 MacArthur Blvd. (Glen Echo, Md)
When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday through Friday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday
Online: gepaquarium.org

Photo: Roer’s Zoofari

The Big Time

Roer’s Zoofari
The petting zoo is a highlight here. For an extra fee, visitors can get milk bottles and animal feed to give goats, pigs, sheep, llamas, rabbits and parakeets. There’s also the Giraffe or Camel Meet & Feed, during which the creature will eat out of your hand while you learn more about the animal. Take a wagon ride to see the free-roaming zebra, buffalo and emus. They’re not usually shy about coming up to say hello – or snag a snack.

Cost: $15 for adults, $10 for kids ages 2 to 12; season passes available
Where: 1228 Hunter Mill Rd. (Vienna, Va)
When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Online: roerszoofari.com

Leesburg Animal Park
Animal petting and feeding, and pony and camel rides mean loads of opportunities for amazing animal encounters. There are also live animal shows three times a day, wagon rides and exotic-animal exhibits, including lemurs, sloths, white-handed gibbons and African serval cats.

Cost: $12.95/adults; $9.95/children ages 2 to 12
Where: 19270 James Monroe Hwy. (Leesburg, Va)
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Online: leesburganimalpark.com

Luray Zoo
Take a Discovery Tour at this rescue zoo with one of the owners. You’ll get hands-on interactions and feed the animals – experiences not included with regular admission fees.

Cost: $25/adult for Discovery Tour; $15/child for Discovery Tour; $12/adult (13 and up) admission,  $6/kids ages 3 to 12, free/kids 2 and younger
Where: 1087 US Hwy. 211 West (Luray, Va)
When: See website for tour times
Online: lurayzoo.com

Where does your animal-loving crew go to see their four-legged friends?

–Stephanie Kanowitz