This is not a knock at all on the Houston Zoo, which is amazing. Heartbroken as I am over the fact it no longer seems to have Slow Lorises, there's plenty else to enjoy there and more is being added all the time. Seriously, go to the zoo. You'll have a great time.
That said, there is more than one option for animal fun in and around the city, and some of them do a really fantastic job of shoring up the zoo's weak points. If you like options, here are ten other places that offer a chance to see animals in a variety of settings.
10. Houston Museum of Natural Science: Why on Earth would you go to the museum for animals when the zoo is literally on the other side of the big hill in Hermann Park? Well, good question, and that's why the museum ranks so low on the list. However, it does boast the Cockerell Butterfly Center, which is a towering rainforest full of butterflies that always captivates attendees of any age. Wear bright colors and watch them land on you. In addition, you can visit with an adorably fat iguana named Charro.
Elsewhere in the center are impressive bug collections behind glass. You can also catch giant 3D I-MAX nature documentaries, but for sure head up to the malacology hall where they have live and extremely active horseshoe crabs hidden in the back.
9. Old MacDonald's Farm: For maximum petting zoo exposure it's Humble you'll be wanting and Old MacDonald's Farm up on FM 1960. There are 12barns where you can pet and feed the animals to your heart's content, though I highly recommend not feeding the deer as they are kind of pushy bastards. The goats and sheep are much more sociable. You can also spot more exotic animals like tortoises and emus, but it's the hands on interaction that is really the best.
The non-animal activities are first-rate as well, with a sand hill, train rides, a pool, a fort, and an Indian village for kids to wear themselves out in, and all of it is included in the $9 price tag (Bring cash).
8. Waugh Drive Bat Colony/Memorial Park: One of the places where our zoo drops the ball is in its bat cave. It's like a White Castle hamburger; all bread and very little meat. If you want bats, just head down to the Waugh Drive Bridge over Memorial around dusk and watch as many as 300,000 Mexican Free-tailed bats emerge and do their duty to the city by eating around 2 ½ tons of insects each night. Family Bat Nights are held every Thursday, Friday, Saturday evening through the Labor Day weekend, and volunteers will give brief presentations on the bats prior to emergence. Unlike Austin, our bat colony stays year-round, though they can be slow to emerge until well after dark in the colder months.
As long as you're in the area, the bike trails in Memorial Park will offer plenty of chances to spy squirrels, possums, woodpeckers, eastern grey and Mexican foxes, night herons, grey herons, nutria, jack rabbits, snapping turtles, Canadian geese, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, tri-colored herons and many more including many adorable baby ducks in the spring.
7. TGR Exotic Wildlife Park: In 1992 Troy and Gwen Scott purchased a pot-bellied pig, and then one thing led to another and they end up with a wildlife park. TGR Exotic boasts more than 100 hand raised animals that the couple supplies to zoo programs all over the United States, including Bengal tigers, gibbons, lemurs, and hyenas. There's also two-hour animal encounter session focusing on specific animals like anteaters, porcupines, camels, llamas, and echidnas, and kangaroos!
Be warned, though, tours and encounters are by schedule only, and you need to check the calendar before you drive all the way out to Spring to visit the park. With some preparation, TGR Exotics can be a great family afternoon.
6. Bayou Wildlife Zoo Though not as huge or impressive as the Houston Zoo, this facility down in Alvin does have something wonderful all to itself, a tram ride. For 45 minutes up to 30 people will ride through the park in style spying on zebras, ostriches, rhinos, deer, camels, and onyxes. There are also alligator ponds, monkey islands, giraffe feeding, and a petting zoo. It's a slightly archaic place, as they take only cash and checks and there's no food besides drink machines, but you can't beat a ride among the wild beasts for fun.
5. Houston Aquarium: Let's face it, the aquarium at the zoo is not all that great, and it kind gets a little more not great every year. While the Aquarium downtown isn't the best fish option in this part of Texas, it's got some incredible things to show you. The shark train is always a good time, taking you through a tunnel featuring huge examples of nurse sharks, sand tiger sharks, and sawfish. If you're lucky you'll get to see them fed.
The other exhibits are no slouch either, with a variety of habitats represented. They even have an electric eel, and a very shy giant Pacific octopus. Non-water animals on display include snakes, poison dart frogs, and two adorable white tigers. For $5 they'll let you feed the stingrays, and if you're hungry yourself the main dining area has the largest cylindrical fish tank in the country to keep you entertained while you eat. Outside, the Ferris wheel gives an unbeatable view of downtown.
4. The Crocodile Experience: The Crocodile Experience claims to be 'Houston's Largest Reptile Show" despite the fact that it's a good hour's drive from the city in Angleton. That's not to say that it's not worth the trip, though. Visitors will see the mighty Nile and Saltwater crocodiles, as well as smaller species, and lizards, turtles, and snakes are also part of the package. You'll get to see feeding demonstrations and observe the feared reptiles as they swim and sun themselves. Don't feel like the drive? They will bring the crocodiles to you, like they did when the Alamo Drafthouse screened the cult classic Alligator. So the next time you're in the mood to spice up the office Christmas party, think about inviting the crocodiles.
Keep an eye out for the upcoming Croctoberfest.
3. Armand Bayou Nature Center If you prefer a more thrilling manner of trip, then you'll want to head down to Pasadena after dark. The Armand Bayou Center is an impressive wildlife reserve during the day, but the night festivities are extraordinary. There's the owl hike, where you'll take off through the trees searching for owls in the branches and other raptors on their evening forages. You can also take the nighttime pontoon boat tours and see the deer and raccoons along the Horsepen Bayou shores, as well as the alligators, turtles, and frogs active in the moonlit water. Daylight activities include a bison watching platform, and a chance to visit an authentic 1890s farmhouse.
2. Hana and Arthur Ginzbarg Nature Discovery Center: A great option for some hands-on animal interaction is located over in the historic Henshaw House in Bellaire's Russ Pitman Park. The Hana and Arthur Ginzbarg Nature Discovery Center has a small, but interesting variety of animals that you can meet and touch, everything from bunnies and snakes to more obscure creatures such as the mysterious limbless amphibians the caecilians and the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach (The most perfectly illustrative title of anything since Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The center also features a library, several traveling exhibits, and the best part is the whole thing is absolutely free!
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1. Moody Gardens: There's plenty to do in the Moody Gardens complex, but for me nothing can compare to the Aquarium Pyramid as far as a zoological day out. With four zones containing everything from sharks to seals to eels to sea turtles it's an enormous experience that tops just about every other option in and around Houston.
If you have the money to spring for it, make sure you try the penguin experience at least once. For 45 minutes you get a private encounter with a penguin, even petting is allowed depending on the mood they are in. You even go home with your own flipper-painted piece of art by your feathered friend. A word of advice though, bring a change of clothes if you do this as you will not notice how much you smell like penguin food after the session.
There's also touch tanks, a new shark program, and of course everything else that's available in the complex if you somewhere get tired of the 1.5 million gallon wonder that is the aquarium and it's more than 10,000 species. With competition this stiff, it's no wonder the zoo doesn't try very hard with its own aquarium.