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Wild about zoos

A favorite family outing, from Maine to Connecticut

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2011

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Franklin Park Zoo is the setting for “Zookeeper,’’ the new movie starring Kevin James and a menagerie of talking animals that hits theaters Friday. While Hollywood’s version of the animal kingdom is blessed with the gift of gab, the animals at Boston’s zoo and others around New England still pack star power that can outshine any multiplex.

Zoos serve up family-friendly entertainment and good values - particularly if you purchase an annual membership, which often includes steep discounts at animal parks around the country. For a guaranteed wild time, follow these signs:

ROGER WILLIAMS PARK ZOO, Providence King of the New England jungles. With more than 100 species from around the globe, this zoo can boast of tremendous geographic diversity and has made a strong effort to replicate natural habitats. Visitors passing through the gates are instantly taken on safari as they encounter zebras, wildebeest, and towering Masai giraffes in the African exhibit. You may catch the African elephants bathing in their pool or cooling under a waterfall. The playful harbor seals and waddling Humboldt penguins, including two chicks hatched in January, are popular with children of any age, while the majestic bald eagles and grazing bison lend a patriotic vibe. 1000 Elmwood Ave., 401-785-3510, www.rwpzoo.org

SOUTHWICK’S ZOO, Mendon Ticket prices at this privately owned zoo may be the most expensive in New England, but the expansive 175-acre animal park offers plenty of bang for those bucks. Nearly all of the animal kingdom’s royalty are here, including tigers, lions, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, and monkeys. You can wander among fallow deer as they roam a 35-acre forest and step inside a new walk-through aviary filled with parakeets and cockatiels. A petting zoo, animal shows, kiddie rides, and a moon bounce the size of an arena provide a nice change of pace for children, and a sky ride soars over the animals for a true bird’s-eye view. (Don’t let the name fool you: It’s not in Southwick, but named for its founding family.) Open mid-April to mid-October. 2 Southwick St., 800-258-9182, www.southwickszoo.com

FRANKLIN PARK ZOO, Dorchester This might not spring to mind as a tropical clime, but you’ll discover a lush jungle environment inside the Tropical Forest building. It’s home to lemurs, tapirs, a pygmy hippo, and a new giant anteater exhibit, but the big draw are the eight western lowland gorillas, including Kambiri, a female born last November. Other highlights include Masai giraffes, zebras, ostrich, wildebeest, and lions and tigers who lounge the day away, except for their periodic roars that echo across the grounds. In summertime, you can feed colorful, free-flying budgies in an Australian-themed aviary and stroll among the soothing gardens and hundreds of fluttering butterflies inside an enclosed tent. Franklin Park Road, Boston, 617-541-LION, www.zoonewengland.org

STONE ZOO, Stoneham

Nine miles north of Boston, and managed along with Franklin Park by Zoo New England, Stone Zoo is smaller than its urban counterpart. Its denizens include white-cheeked gibbons, meerkats, flamingos, bats, and some big cats: jaguars, cougars, and snow leopards. The star attractions with many children, though, are brothers Smoky and Bubba, a pair of black bears roaming behind a glass viewing area. Kids can get close to farm animals in the barnyard and swing like monkeys on the playground. The Birds of Prey show, held daily in summer, features 16 species - including vultures, owls, and storks - that fly overhead and show survival and foraging behaviors. . 149 Pond St., 781-438-5100, www.zoonewengland.org

Buttonwood Park Zoo New Bedford The night life is wild at this southeast Massachusetts zoo, which hosts twilight tours that include flashlight viewings of the animals, pizza, and s’mores around a campfire. Youth groups can even spend the night camping with the critters. Many of the zoo’s residents - including Ruth, one of the two Asian elephants - are rescue animals found injured in the wild or confiscated from abusive situations. The 25th anniversary of Ruth’s rescue is being marked by programs, including Elephant Appreciation Day on Sept. 18. New arrivals include a female bald eagle; Duncan and Doenut, a pair of year-old river otters; and a wildlife carousel featuring 18 hand-crafted animals. 425 Hawthorn St., 508-991-6178, www.bpzoo.org

The Zoo in Forest Park Springfield Theodor Seuss Geisel, a native of the city, mined his memories of the zoo for Dr. Seuss’s inspiration, but you won’t find any Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dills or Tufted Mazurkas among its 200 animals. However, you will see black bears, alligators, monkeys, camels, wallabies, and lemurs. Kids can take a train trip around the zoo and visit a New England barnyard. The zoo hosts a variety of programs, including a summertime Zoo Camp for youngsters and a Backyard Friends event on July 9 focused on indigenous species of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Luckily, the zoo and its inhabitants emerged safely from the June tornadoes. Open April 1 to Oct. 10. 302 Summer Ave., 413-733-2251, www.forestparkzoo.org

Capron Park Zoo Attleboro Even though it’s one of the smaller animal parks in New England, Capron Park has a diverse menagerie that includes an African lion, snow leopard, sloth bear, red kangaroo, binturong, river otter, meerkat, and lemur. Among the newest additions are a small clutch of emu chicks only recently hatched. The zoo’s splash pad is a popular summertime attraction, so pack a swimsuit and a towel for the kids, but leave the lunches and snacks at home; food and beverage from outside are not permitted. 201 County St., 774-203-1840, www.capronparkzoo.com

Beardsley Zoo Bridgeport, Conn. Connecticut’s only zoo has gone to the birds, but that’s a good thing for animal lovers. Peacocks and other feathered friends freely wander the grounds, while tropical birds fly about in the South American rain forest building. Kids will enjoy petting the barnyard animals at the New England farm or popping up through unique translucent capsules in the prairie dog exhibit to come face to face with the furry critters. New additions include four snowy owls and a rare endangered ocelot kitten born in the zoo in January. The carousel with exquisitely carved animals in the Victorian-style pavilion is a gem. 1875 Noble Ave., 203-394-6565, www.beardsleyzoo.org

Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, Holderness, N.H. This is anything but a conventional zoo. Most of the animals, orphaned or injured Granite State natives, roam open meadows and mature forests. Youngsters can climb a giant spider web or two-story tree and invent their own insects at the children’s center. Visitors can spend a full day walking on wetlands and forest trails, hiking up Mount Fayal for spectacular views, and taking a cruise on Big Squam Lake that offers opportunities to spy loons and bald eagles in their natural habitats. Open May 1-Nov. 1. 23 Science Center Road, 603-968-7194, www.nhnature.org

York’s Wild Kingdom York, Maine This popular summertime attraction on the ocean’s doorstep is a combination zoo and amusement park with 18 rides, including a Ferris wheel with seaside views. Visitors can wander among fluttering South and Central American butterflies, birds, and small primates in the Wild Butterfly Kingdom exhibit. Another popular exhibit is the Alamo replica in which prairie dogs peek their heads out windows and stand sentinel. Patented synthetic foraging units maximize animals’ mental stimulation and replicate their efforts to obtain food in their natural environments. Open May 28-Sept. 25. 1090 US Route 1, 207-363-4911, www.yorkzoo.com

Maine Wildlife Park Gray, Maine If you want a guaranteed moose sighting, take a short detour off the Maine Turnpike and you will find the state mammal and more than 30 other native species - such as deer, black bears, and mountain lions - at this park. Owned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the park includes wetland trails, a fish house stocked with live native species, a fish hatchery that raises up to 100,000 brook trout annually, flower gardens, and even a game warden museum. Visitors can follow an audio tour on their cellphones as they wander trails under towering white pine trees. Open April 15-Nov. 11. 56 Game Farm Road, 207-657-4977, www.mainewildlifepark.com

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.