THE BLOG
12/23/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Road Trip USA: Ohio

Welcome back to Road Trip USA, a journey to showcase the best of America's travelscape, one State at a time. Driving from State to State, it's my job to illustrate the breadth of possible adventures available to you in the most diverse country on Earth, and to remind us what we love to experience in these United States.

My last adventure was tackling the whitewater rapids on the New River in West Virginia. After driving across the border into Ohio I headed for its third largest city, Cincinnati, for up-close and personal animal encounters at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

OHIO: Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

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When I was a little kid I used to love going to our local zoo each year to see the animals, checking to see how they were all doing. Although the zoo changed very little from year to year, my fascination grew bigger and bigger with every visit. There's just something about putting kids together with animals that fosters a unique and enduring curiosity; mine is still with me to this day.

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Cincinnati, Ohio is home to the nation's 2nd oldest zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden opened its doors to the public in 1875 (only a year after the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest in the United States). It's a National Historical Landmark, but by no means would I characterize the zoo as old. The Cincinnati Zoo has a carefully planned, modern setup combining spaces for animal habitation with guest viewing and interactivity. It was this special aspect of animal interactivity that had me excited with anticipation on my drive through Ohio.

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The Animal Encounters at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden offer guests opportunities to learn, see, touch, interact, smile, overcome fears, make friends, and collect memories in ways that inspire kids to want to see and do more (and adults too, I was totally enthralled by the entire experience).
Each day a lengthy list of Animal Encounters with that day's schedule is listed on the zoo's website and at the Welcome Center, offering experiences that span the wildlife spectrum from reptile encounters to giraffe feedings, insect encounters to bird interactives, opportunities to experience the wonders of red pandas, bat-eared foxes, flamingos, polar bears, sea lions, gorillas, and much much more.

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This is Caspian, she's one of the zoo's Animal Ambassadors, and she's adorable. Being a Eurasian Eagle Owl, Caspian isn't native to North America, however she was hand raised at the zoo so she could grow up to help teach visitors about Eurasian Owls who live in the wild back in Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. The Cincinnati Zoo has many Animal Ambassadors just like Caspian, whose job at the zoo means communicating to visitors (through their daily lives and unique ways of living) what it's like to be them.

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The Animal Ambassadors are always happy to show you how they eat. Sarrai is a Bactrian Camel (two humps, not one) and she's great with kids, especially when they're holding tasty nuggets. I'd never had the chance to feed a camel before, and it was hard not to notice how delicate she was taking the nuggets out of our hands with her finger-like lips.

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Animals teach us about their ways, without even trying too hard. You may have heard in school that a giraffe's tongue can be up to a foot and a half long, but a great way to remember that you heard that in school is through feeding a giraffe yourself.

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Conservation of endangered and threatened species is at the very core of the zoo's ultimate mission. Imara, the African Painted Dog you see here, represents one of the most endangered creatures in Africa. She's also a perfect example of Mother Nature's incredible capacity for beauty. Her partner Brahma lives with her at the Cincinnati Zoo's Painted Dog Valley, and with fingers crossed they'll be welcoming little ones soon. Following their "goat lunch" (you can see a bit of that in her mouth), our crew got a chance to watch them trying to make a new family (not pictured here). I wish them the best of luck!

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One of the ways the zoo makes their encounters not only fun for the guests, but exciting for the animals as well, is through enrichments. This is Walter's first pumpkin (try to remember how excited you were when you got your first pumpkin). Walter is a warthog, a species native to Africa (pumpkins are native to North America). Enrichment is a way the zoo keeps animals excited about their surroundings, because no two days would be the same for them in the wild, and because life deserves to be fun (and who doesn't love a pumpkin). Walter, as we predicted, wasn't sure what to do with the giant orange ball at first, so he spent a lot of time rolling it around single-player soccer style. Eventually we helped him get to the fleshy inside where Walter discovered a pumpkin is both fun and food. I doubt Walter would be very interested in pumpkin pie, he was however thrilled to gobble up all the seeds that spilled out.

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If you've never spent time corralling flamingos down a path to their exhibition space before, I highly recommend it. It's great exercise for them, and great for you as well, as the flamingos often take a roundabout way to get where they're going. These are Greater Flamingos (you can tell by their pink beaks with black tips), and after a visit to the zoo if you find yourself wishing you could take one of these guys home, you're not alone. Since it had rained earlier in the day the exhibition space was full of puddles, which the flamingos thought were the best thing in the whole world (the puddles mimic the feeding ponds they'd be used to in the wild).

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No visit to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is complete without saying "Hi" to Moe the Sloth! She's an unofficial mascot and one of the biggest attractions at the zoo. There are not too many two-toed sloths in Ohio, and Moe's full time job is to represent sloth-dom (and to sleep, she sleeps 20 hours a day). Moe taught me so much about what it's like to be a sloth these days. She doesn't have great depth perception so her movements always appear as if she's curious about the world, in the wild she'd be covered with algae and the "stink" of her favorite tree (as not to attract unwanted predators), and she uses the restroom (also located at the bottom of her favorite tree) just once a week. Way to go Moe!

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The zoo is one of the perfect family experiences. I try to make a point of highlighting whenever a travel adventure speaks to kids as much as to adults, because my childhood adventures definitely informed my adult passions. I'll always be a sucker for zoos, animals, and animals encounters; I'll bet this little girl will grow up to be the same way. She's also going to grow up to be very health conscious! She reminded all of us to wash our hands after feeding the camel (adorable!), and that's exactly what I did before heading off to my next adventure.

Next Stop: KENTUCKY!