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Five Faves - Animal encounters of the best kind

Animal encounters of the best kind
Shelby and Salem, sister lionesses in Wild Africa.

In the course of four decades, Binder Park Zoo has evolved from a small petting zoo to a cultural organization and facility that has more than 400 acres and 500-plus animals and is dedicated to the conservation of animal species. From its beginning, the zoo has provided guests with opportunities to get up close and personal with animals from far-flung places. From the thrill of a face-to-face encounter with an African lion to the experience of hand-feeding a giraffe to the emotional connection made gazing into the eyes of an ancient tortoise, these are some our favorite animal encounters.

Lions lounging around

Last July, Binder Park Zoo opened the African lion exhibit in our Wild Africa section, becoming the must-see summer exhibit at the zoo. A young male lion named Enzi and his sister lionesses Shelby and Salem were welcomed to Wild Africa, creating a new pride at the zoo. Their exhibit features a vast natural habitat to roam in, complete with compelling views for guests and state-of-the-art holding areas for the safety, care and comfort of the lions. Whether you catch the lions lounging or prowling, this exhibit will elicit awe.

Make mine rare, please

Carcass feeding to zoo carnivores is an experience equally enriching for the animals and for witnessing guests. This recently introduced practice at the zoo involves the delivery of a carcass portion — generally deer — to our African painted dogs, Mexican gray wolves and African lions. Carcass feeding encourages natural behavior in these animals, providing mental stimulation, physical exercise and the enjoyment of a meal quite different from their daily diet. For social carnivores like the African painted dogs, it helps re-establish the hierarchy of the pack order, fostering stronger bonds between its members. Observing a carcass feeding is to have a unique glimpse into the natural world of some of the zoo’s most fascinating animals.

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You can call him Al

One of the most iconic animals at the zoo lives but a few yards from the lions — the Aldabra giant tortoise, more affectionately known as Al. He has resided at the zoo since 1984, longer than any other animal and most staff. This beloved behemoth weighs more than 500 pounds and, at nearly 80 years old, is still considered only middle-aged, since tortoises can live from 150 to 200 years. Aldabras are among the world’s largest land tortoises and are considered vulnerable due to habitat loss and competition for resources. Quite social by nature, Al can identify his keepers and savors receiving his favorite treat from them — the occasional banana. On warmer days, Al can be found grazing in his exhibit or lounging in his pool.


Twiga is the Swahili word for giraffe, and the zoo’s aptly named Twiga Overlook is where guests can enjoy the thrilling experience of hand-feeding a giraffe. The reticulated giraffes that roam the savanna area, among zebras, gazelles and waterbucks, are curious and gregarious animals that will wander right up to the overlook deck to receive snacks of romaine lettuce offered by guests. To look the world’s tallest land mammal directly in the eye, touch its velvety muzzle and feel its tongue curl around the lettuce leaf in your fingertips prompts gasps, giggles and squeals of delight. But in that moment, a deep and meaningful connection with nature can also be made, fostering a greater understanding of the importance of conservation.

Endangered species

Binder Park Zoo is home to 11 endangered and critically endangered animal species. “Critically endangered” means the species is one step from extinction, and in that group are the addax, addra gazelle, Panamanian golden frog and black and white ruffed lemur. The snow leopard, spotted turtle, African painted dog, Chinese red panda (at left), Mexican gray wolf, Przewalski’s wild horse and ring-tailed lemur are only two steps away, thus making the “endangered” list.
Many zoo members and guests have a favorite animal that they connect with on an emotional level — the cute red panda, the spirited snow leopard or perhaps the comical ring-tailed lemur. The zoo’s mission is not only to connect people to nature and inspire them to conserve but also to educate zoo-goers about the situations faced by these animals’ counterparts in the wild. When you pay a special visit to your favorite animal, note its particular conservation status and what you can do to make a difference.


About the author

Binder Park Zoo

Binder Park Zoo Staff

Binder Park Zoo opened its doors in 1977, near Battle Creek, three miles south of Exit 100 on I-94. Its mission is to “Connect. Inspire. Conserve. Connect people to nature. Inspire them to conserve.” The zoo is open from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Sunday. For visitor information, programs, events and more, go to binderparkzoo.org