Come Face-to-Face with a Giraffe at the North Carolina Zoo
Giraffes are the tallest land animals — 6 feet at birth. Ever looked one in the eye? Whether you’re 6 feet or 42 inches, you can come face-to-face with one at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.
"Up on the observation deck, you realize just how tall these guys are," says Gavin Johnson, head of publicity for the North Carolina Zoo.
For $2, you can buy "giraffe food" from the zookeeper and hold it out to these gentle animals. "A giraffe’s tongue is super long, and they’ll just lick the food right out of your hand," Johnson says.
Feeding the giraffes is one of the top attractions at the zoo, but for the acrophobic, there are another range of options — 500 acres of them, actually, making the North Carolina Zoo not only one of the largest in the nation, but also the perfect destination for a day trip from any location across the state.
Ham the Chimp — the first hominid in outer space — was one of the North Carolina Zoo’s early residents. This spring, a T-Rex takes top celebrity status at the zoo. In 2012 and 2013, the Zoo’s "Dino World" exhibit set attendance records. Now Dino World is back and, according to Johnson, "way bigger and way better."
The 2015 exhibit includes 19 animatronic dinosaurs, a fossil dig and one "live" dinosaur. This live T-Rex has a personality more akin to a giraffe than a monster, but he will definitely be a scene-stealer, a 14-footer walking through the crowds to meet and greet — and pose for selfies.
"Dino World is going to be awesome," Johnson says.
If you’re looking for a slightly smaller creature, check out the zoo’s baby animals. There are two 2-year old gorillas, five chimpanzees under the age of 5, and four lion cubs that were born in July.
"They are all super-cute and playful and always attract a big crowd," Johnson says, adding that most little kids especially like the baby chimps, who are about their size. When little kids wave or dance in front of the chimps, Johnson says, the chimps often mimic the kids, dancing and waving back at them.
The North Carolina Zoo’s play area, KidZone, is another big draw. "There are always a couple of mothers who complain that they drove two hours to get to the zoo and then their child spent the entire time in KidZone," Johnson says.
KidZone features a theme of "connecting kids to nature" and offers a stream for kids to play in, a mud café, a "treetop trail"— a wooden walkway with ropes that allows kids to experience a forest canopy — and a shed filled with dress-up clothes and vet equipment for the aspiring veterinarian. Don’t forget about the butterfly garden!
Be sure to check out the main animal exhibits, too.
"The elephants are extremely popular," Johnson says. "Even compared with the dinosaurs, these are big animals."
True to the zoo’s commitment to providing natural habitat enclosures, the elephants wander freely in the 7-acre "Watani Grasslands" exhibit, where the vegetation mimics African grasslands. Meanwhile, Anana, the polar bear, is enjoying an $8 million renovation to her home, which features extensive viewing areas, a cave filled with artwork and several interactive computer stations.
When you’ve had your fill of walking the 5 miles of zoo trails (or taking the shuttle throughout the park), you can sit back in the North Carolina Zoo’s 4D theater, which will complement Dino World this spring by featuring an animated dinosaur movie. The other movie option is a bit more mainstream: "SpongeBob."
For more information on the zoo, including hours, directions, tickets, special attractions and summer camp options, visit nczoo.org. Tickets are sold separately for Dino World, the 4D theater, feeding the giraffes and the carousel.
Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.