Location: Gage Park (the park’s at the intersection of 10th and Gage), Topeka, KS
Cost: There are discounts available for groups; they also participate in reciprocal memberships, so if you have a membership to the Kansas City Zoo, for instance, you can get in for 1/2 price with your membership card and a photo ID.
Seniors (ages 65 and over): $4.75
Children (ages 3 to 12): $4.25
Children under 2: Free
Web site: http://topekazoo.org/
With the promise of penguins to propel us, we braved the scorching Kansas heat to visit the World-Famous Topeka Zoo on Sunday. To make a long story short, if your sole purpose in visiting the zoo is the penguins, save your money and stay at home. Instead, view the penguins from air-conditioned comfort by viewing the PenguinCam; the camera is closer to the penguins than you can be, so you’ll get a closer view and save yourself potential heat stroke. You can visit the PenguinCam at http://www.penguin-plunge.com/penguincam.html.
The Penguin Plunge is in the Security Benefit Pavilion near the front gate. It’s an open-sided shelterhouse that’s been modified to house the penguin exhibit. There’s a space for the Penguin Keeper Chat (we skipped it because we were already sweltering, even at 11-o-something a.m.). There are several areas demonstrating different elements of penguin habitat and threats humans make to that habitat; these exhibits are bigger than the penguin enclosure itself. They’re hands-off exhibits, and nothing is in braille; this is not a good area for the visually impaired.
The Penguin Plunge itself is not the cool experience you have in mind–four out of four adults in our party were disappointed with the experience. There’s a 6×12′ (or so) window in the far wall that shows you the penguins; there’s a rocky ‘cliff’ that they hang out on, and there’s water that they can swim in. It would be neat if they were swimming–you would be able to see them even under the water–but they were pooped when we visited and hanging out on the rocks. There’s some glare on the window, and you’re in the Kansas heat while they’re (I hope) in air-conditioned comfort; if the weather keeps up like it has been, you’re not going to want to stay long to see if they’ll move or do something interesting.
We had much better luck with the giraffes in the Animals and Man Building. When we walked into the zoo, we saw a sign saying that Giraffe Feeding would start at 11 o’clock. We agreed that giraffe feeding sounded cool, so we headed to the Animals and Man Building to check it out. We were delighted when we got there to discover that “Giraffe Feeding” meant “you can feed a giraffe!” For $1 a leaf, you can step up close to the giraffe enclosure and feed one of these gentle giants.
I highly recommend feeding the giraffes. You get up close to an enormous animal, and it reaches down and takes the lettuce from you with its raspy, prehensile tongue. There’s a step stool to help you get high enough for the male giraffe to reach; Grandfather gamely took Peanut up to feed the giraffe, but he seemed a bit anxious about it and I offered a hand for balance-reassurance. One of my favorite memories from when I was little was feeding a giraffe at a zoo in Colorado; I can guarantee that it’s a memorable, worthwhile experience.
After visiting the giraffes, we cooled off by checking out the photo exposition on penguins in the old zoo school area by the hippos in the Animals and Man Building. The photos are large and start about 3′ from the floor, so it was easy for Peanut to get up close to see them. More importantly for us, it was blessedly cool, even cold in the room–it was a welcome relief after the heat of waiting for our giraffe friends.
After checking out the penguins, we headed to the Great Apes exhibit–it was the only other place in the zoo we thought might have air conditioning. I was delighted to see that they’ve improved the exhibit: the too-widely-spaced bars behind the orangutans have been modified with 1×2″ boards so it’s no longer wide enough between the bars for a kid to slip through, the tortoises have been moved over by the giraffes, and they’ve put an indoor waterfall where the tortoises used to be. It was pretty neat! It added audio interest to the space and was much safer than the previous set-up.
As you exit the orangutan portion of the exhibit, there’s a large room where a fish tank used to be. To the left are a glass-front exhibit of African items, a shelving unit with touchable primate skulls, and the “Kesho Ranger Station” to explore. My family was most pleased with the large, leather chairs facing a big-screen tv; we watched the Planet Earth video through to its end and rejoiced in the air-conditioned comfort.
I could tell that they’ve been making improvements to the zoo since we’d last been there; I’m eager to go back on a cooler day to check it out. If you’re wanting to see the penguins in person, they’ll be there through September 10, 2012.