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A day trip to the Naples Zoo offers lots of family fun

By Staff | Nov 26, 2008

Lions and tigers and — coming in 2009 — bears, oh my!

For almost 40 years, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens has been a staple in the education and appreciation of wildlife for both seasonal guests and year-round settlers of Southwest Florida. About an hour south of Sanibel, the facility features exhibits of rare carnivores and exotic cats, interactive presentations as well as one of the oldest botanical gardens in the country.

Founded in 1969 by Larry and Nancy Jane Tetzlaff, the zoo was originally called “Jungle Larry & Safari Jane’s African Safari at Caribbean Gardens.” Over the years, the popular attraction — which garners more than 250,000 guests annually — adopted the easier-to-recall moniker Naples Zoo in 2005.

Tim Tetzlaff, the co-founders’ son and current Director of Conservation and Communications at Naples Zoo, recalled what it was like to literally “grow up” at the zoo.

“Like any kid, anything that you did when you were young you think is great,” he said. “But the older I got, the more I realized just how special it was.”

Tetzlaff touts the zoo for being “two attractions in one,” offering young and old the chance to witness some of the world’s most unique and rarely seen animal species as well as explore a nearly 90-year-old botanic garden founded by Dr. Henry Nehring, an early advocate for conservation of Florida’s nature.

“Everything is planted in an organic fashion, like a real forest,” Tetzlaff explained. “That’s different than what you’ll see in other zoos. And what we do is help make that direct connection with our animals and the people who visit here. Our live presentations is where we place our focus.”

Naples Zoo offers a half dozen regular shows and presentations, including “Planet Predator.” Staged within the facilities’ Safari Canyon open air theater, the 20-minute interactive experience allows the audience to see several species (an ocelot, kinkajou, scorpion, Gila monster and binturong are part of the current show) from a close vantage point.

Other ongoing presentations include:

• Primate Expedition Cruise — A guided journey along the zoo’s man-made Lake Victoria travels slowly past islands filled with monkeys, lemurs and apes.

• Serpents: Fangs & Fiction — Discover the world of reptiles, including several species of venomous snakes.

• Meet The Keeper — Chat with professional zookeepers and see the animals they care for. Current exhibits feature African lions, Malayan tigers, leopards and fosas.

• Alligator Bay — Learn the truth behind the myths about these giant

reptiles. (The daily feeding schedule varies, but current times are 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.)

• Botanical Tours — Join a Master Gardener for a tour through part of their famous gardens, first established in 1919.

“The shows we have here are unique. You don’t see things like we have at other zoos,” said Tara Carter, a carnivore keeper who joined the zoo staff in 2002. “The ‘Meet The Keeper’ program is very popular. People always come up to me after the show and say how amazed they are just how close they can get to the animals.”

Featured exhibits include Leopard Rock, Panther Glade, African Oasis, Tiger Forest, NFW Wildlife Habitat and African Wild Dogs.

In the past 30 months, Tetzlaff noted that the zoo has added three new feature exhibits including the fosas, which opened in July. In 2009, they are planning to add “Black Bear Hammock,” featuring two black bears — which are native to Florida — within an enclosure greater than 10,000 square feet.

Naples Zoo, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (Note: The last admission tickets are sold at 4 p.m.), is a fun and casual attraction that is perfect for families, couples and singles. While there is much to do, the entire facility can be visited during a four to five hour experience.

“I always tell people to arrive early in the day, because that’s when the animals are most active,” Tetzlaff said. “And make sure you see the shows. It’s great education and great entertainment. That’s the foundation of what we do.”

“I like the way the shows are lined up. They don’t overlap, so you won’t miss anything,” added Carter. “If you’re here for most of the day, you’ll get to see everything.”

Although the zoo will be closed for Thanksgiving, their annual “12 Days Of Wild Holiday Fun” is just around the corner. Held from Dec. 13-24, Santa will be delivering gifts to the animals. Zoo guests will watch lions claw into beautifully wrapped presents, hyenas lick candy canes made from blood and ice, lemurs nibble treats off a Christmas tree, and many other animals enjoy holiday-related delicacies. Check www.napleszoo.org for the complete schedule of special events and more information about Naples Zoo.