Call of the Wild: Wide Open Zoo Alternatives for Little Animal Lovers

Lifestyles of the average urban to suburban family in the DMV do not allow much in the way of wildlife encounters, except perhaps of the bright eyed and bushy-tailed variety scampering in front of your car, or maybe a related, but different species jumping on your bed Sunday morning. Local parks and sanctuaries, however, are making conservation of a full range of native fauna and their habitats, a bigger part of our daily lives through opportunities for close encounters with wildlife, and to enhance the biodiversity of your own backyard.

Photo: Matthew Beziat via flickr

Audubon Society
2018 is the Year of the Bird, and Audubon‘s several D.C. area affiliates remain dedicated to our fine feathered friends, but also offer a broad selection of programming from pre-school or summer camps at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary headquarters in Chevy Chase, to hikes around Leesburg’s Rust Nature Sanctuary, part of the NoVa park system. Other regional refuges worth a day trip include Baltimore’s Patterson Park Audubon Center, and the Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton, Maryland. The Audubon Society of Northern Virginia teaches property owners to preserve habitat for 30 sanctuary species through the Audubon at Home Wildlife Sanctuary Program.


Black Hill Regional Park
Upper Montgomery County Maryland’s Black Hill Regional Park has over 2,000 acres wildlife call home. Families can observe critters big and small along 20 miles of hiking trails, or on Little Seneca Lake aboard the pontoon boat Kingfisher, with tours such as the sunset Bats and Beavers Cruise on April 18. Boat rentals and fishing are also popular ways to explore the Black Hill Water Trail, and the Park’s Visitor Center offers something for everyone from Time for Tots programs, to nighttime stargazing hikes and beginning kayaking classes.


Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary
What started out as 400 acres owned by Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated founder Edgar Merkle, is now over 1,900 acres of public land on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, comprising Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary. The biggest creature feature at Merkle are the Canada Geese who winter here from October through early March, although many geese remain throughout the year, as well as several other species of flying friends. The Critical Area Driving Tour makes hiking-trail accessibility a non-issue for all populations, with just over four miles of trail open daily to non-vehicle traffic, or to driving, on Sundays only, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. A Visitor Center complete with live specimens is also a fun stop for kids.


Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge
Celebrating its 72nd birthday last month, the Patuxent Research Refuge, the country’s only National Wildlife Refuge established to support wildlife research offers close encounters with wildlife just miles from the D.C. line. Located on the South Track of the refuge’s over 12,000 acres, the Visitor Center offers Wildlife Conservation Tram Tours beginning May 6 through October, and hosts several family and kid-friendly activities throughout the year, including this summer’s Wildlife Conservation and Recreation Day on August 25, 2018.


Do you have a favorite spot to get up close and personal with wildlife? Tell us in the comments below. 

—Carolyn Ross


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