Adventure At The Zoo And Beyond

A sugar glider sits cooped up inside a small sack, which is where it sleeps.

There are plenty of opportunities for children of all ages to learn about animals, nature and conservation this summer through the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park, and a partner agency, the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust.

    “As a tourist attraction, the zoo is a great place for families to visit in the summer,” and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., said Deborah C. Bleier, marketing director. 

    The zoo features animals native to the Northern New York region, including lynx, bobcats, elk, grey wolves, river otters, black bears, mountain lions, bald eagles, golden eagles and turkey vultures. These animals are well-adapted to the region’s climate, and in many cases, have been rescued and rehabilitated before finding their new home at the zoo. 

    In addition to the main exhibits, there are educational displays throughout the zoo designed to be fun for children as well, such as “How Far Can You Jump?” areas, which allow children to jump inside a sanded area and compare their distances to markers of other animals. 

    Another popular attraction is the butterfly house, where visitors enter and observe a variety of butterflies as they travel back and forth among different plant species. There are also indoor reptile exhibits for children to view. 

    One special area specifically for the younger crowd is the Children’s Farm, which features hens, chickens, goats, and pigs, and will soon have the addition of calves from a local farm, said Renee L. Mullenax, curator of conservation education. “We have a long-term goal of revamping the children’s farm section of the zoo, and really highlighting the agriculture in the region,” she added. 

The zoo will also offer these summer programs for children of all ages:  

  • The popular “Zoo Safari” week-long day camps for children ages 6 to 13 will return. The camps run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., although there are options for early drop-offs and late pick-ups. Lunch options are available, or children may bring their own. The week-long camps run during July and August, and each has a different theme. They include activities throughout the zoo, and offer participants the opportunity to “meet some different animals up close,” Ms. Mullenax said. Camp themes include Planet Earth, Pollinator Heroes, What’s in the Water, Flights of Fancy and Myth Busters. Pre-registration is required and the cost ranges from $80 to $200, based on half or full-day programs.  
  • For the younger children, the zoo offers “Wild Tots” for ages 2 to 5 years’ old, an educational program that emphasizes “sensory experiences and activities to get kids moving,” said Ms. Mullenax. Activities are typically based on a book theme, and also help children work on their fine motor skills. A parent or guardian attends with the child, and the cost includes admission to the zoo. Preregistration is required, and sessions are held the first Saturday of each month from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. (March through October). The cost is $20 for members and $25 for non-members, and includes zoo admission.  
  • There are numerous volunteer opportunities at the zoo during the summer months. Those ages 16 and older may volunteer on their own, while children under the age of 16 must volunteer with a parent or guardian. Volunteer opportunities are also available for families, and organizations such as the boy and girl scouts, church groups and retirement communities. “There are many great opportunities to help at the zoo, with projects such as minor landscaping, weeding, gardening and painting,” Ms. Mullenax said. 
  • Children may also have birthday parties at the zoo, which includes the opportunity to have a “close educational encounter” with an animal, along with admission to the zoo. Staff also take care of decorating and the cake. For more information on costs, enrollment deadlines and schedules for all programs, contact the zoo at 315-755-0896 or 

The Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, based at the NYS Zoo at Thompson Park, “supports the zoo’s mission by conserving lands that provide the habitats necessary for wildlife to thrive, and building a stronger community that is supportive of protecting open space for wildlife and humans,” said Linda Gibbs, THTLT Community Programs director. 

    The nonprofit organization offers several related programs off-site at its Joseph A. Blake Wildlife Sanctuary, 31269 Middle Road (County Route 160) in the town of Rutland. 

    “Visiting and learning at the zoo is enhanced when we can get outside in natural settings to explore,” Mrs. Gibbs said. “Time spent outdoors helps us relax, focus and re-energize, deepens our understanding and connection of our special place on the planet, and strengthens our relationships with each other.”  

There are two free programs scheduled this summer at the Joseph Blake Wildlife Sanctuary:  

  • “Woodland Fairy Houses” will be 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, July 27th. The program will include a story reading about “woodland fairies” followed by an opportunity for children to explore the trails and collect natural materials to create their own fairy houses to bring home. Participants should wear sturdy shoes (waterproof boots if conditions are wet), dress for the weather, and bring insect spray. Snacks and water will be provided. Space is limited and preregistration is required. 
  • “Geocaching Saturday” will be 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 24th. Geocaching is described as “a real-world outdoor treasure hunt using a GPS-enabled device, such as a smart phone, to navigate a specific set of coordinates and locate a hidden geocache (container).” Participants typically can take an item from the cache and leave something of equal or greater value in its place. The cache is then put back exactly as it was found. Several geocaches will be available at the sanctuary for participants to find. 

Both programs are free, but preregistration is requested. For more information, contact the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust at 315-779-2239, visit their website at or e-mail 



Looking to cool off after participating in some outdoor activities at the zoo? The Thompson Park splash pad is the perfect option for children of all ages to enjoy some water play. 

    The splash pad is open for the summer season. The hours are dependent on weather, but it’s typically open every day. 

    The 4,000-square-foot splash pad made its debut last summer and features a 22-component spray park. It is located adjacent to the former Thompson Park pool. 

    It was constructed with funding from the city of Watertown, the Friends of Thompson Park, Northern New York Community Foundation, Watertown Noon Rotary Club and New York state.