The Cincinnati Zoo: Animals are Our Best Hope for Sanity During the Pandemic

During the past few months of quarantine, I’ve found myself turning to activities that remind me of childhood. Watching Avatar the Last Airbender, playing Animal Crossing, enjoying those heartening echoes of a simpler time. You know what I really loved as a kid? Animals. I used to love books and TV shows about animals so much that I would insist on showing off all the different animals I could name. (Was I an annoying child? Maybe.) I am proud to be in the Crocodile Hunter generation. So, with things reopening, I had to plan a visit to my local zoo and spend some quality time with the animals.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is one of the oldest zoos in America, established in 1875, and it’s very active with breeding and conservation programs. It’s also just a great place to explore—the layout is compact and the landscaping is beautiful. Also, the zoo adds upgrades frequently. The new Roo Valley area opened last month! 

Like most places these days, the zoo has reduced visitor capacity and added safety measures due to COVID-19. You have to make timed reservations online and bring a mask to wear, at least for the indoor areas. Upon arrival, my wife and I had to wait only a few minutes to check in. No big deal. Once inside, we found varying degrees of distancing and mask wearing. Fortunately, people mostly kept masks on indoors and followed the 1-way traffic flows in places. Overall, I felt there was enough room to spread out to a safe distance pretty much everywhere, though we had to wait our turn in a few areas and dodge the occasional runaway child.

It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and luckily some of the animals were making the best of the summer just like us. We saw the huge Galapagos tortoises eating lunch by their pool. (Yes, they have a pool with a waterfall. I’m pretty jealous.) We found the red pandas, who were climbing around the trees looking adorable as always. The mountain lions and snow leopards were lounging in the shade, which seemed a very reasonable activity under the circumstances.  

We worked in a clockwise circle from the entrance. The zoo’s layout can be a bit confusing, so that’s what I’d recommend for you too. You can always consult a map on your smartphone. 

We decided to check out a couple of the indoor areas along the way. (Masks on!) The highlight for me was seeing the manatees. The zoo helps rescue and rehabilitate these gentle creatures, eventually sending them back into the wild in Florida. We arrived during feeding time to see them munching on lettuce and slowly swimming around a bit. What a life!

For other charismatic creatures, I recommend stopping by the Animal Ambassador Center.  It’s easy to miss, tucked away in the center of the zoo. Don’t miss it, though. It’s home to a group of animals that are specially trained to interact with humans, like Isla the tamandua and Lucille the bearcat. 

And go see Fiona the hippo too. She’s an internet celebrity! Also, she’s maybe the unofficial mascot of Cincinnati? People are crazy about her. 

If you visit on a hot summer day, chances are you’ll need refreshments. The zoo’s indoor cafe areas are closed, but they still serve food and drink at outdoor stands. We got waters and a rootbeer float, and we took a mid-visit break on the terrace of the zoo’s main cafe, which overlooks the African savannah exhibit. I was glad to see the tables spaced quite far apart for safety. It’s been such a rare thing to hang out anywhere outside of my home, I was tempted to get another ice cream and stay for a while. 

Whether you’re reliving elements of your childhood or just looking for something fun to do during the pandemic, you should check out the Cincinnati Zoo. They are serious about safety procedures and still giving guests a wonderful experience. At a minimum, you should follow them on Instagram for some cute photos and videos! Take a break from the troubles of the human world to hang out with the animals.

For more Cincinnati adventures, check out these posts:


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