Did you know that a hippopotamus can crush a large pumpkin with its jaws? Neither did I, until I was handed a pumpkin and told I could place it right into the waiting hippo’s mouth.
Hungry Hungry Hippos!
Last month I got the opportunity to visit Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, MO, including an awesome behind the scenes tour that involved animal interactions like my moment with the hippos above. Although I got a more in-depth look at all of the care and attention that goes into caring for the zoo’s 500+ animals than the average visitor does, most of the special experiences I got to participate in are available to everyone!
I grew up in southwest MO, so I remember visiting Dickerson Park Zoo as a kid, but I don’t think I’d been since the 80s, so my memories are pretty thin! The zoo is located right next to the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, so anytime I’ve attended an event there over the past few years, I found myself thinking it would be fun to revisit the zoo. Glad I finally got a chance to!
Visiting the zoo’s veterinary facilities made me wish I’d gone pre-vet in college like I’d planned in high school! Being a zoo vet would be absolutely fascinating, since you get so many unusual cases and creatures. Sure, they still spend a lot of time doing routine exams like a regular vet but just within the past few days before my visit, they had repaired the broken beak of a Scarlet Ibis and crafted a little boot for a black swan with a foot problem so it could heal more comfortably. I think I’d love the creativity and out of the box thinking required to treat such a wide range of animals and illnesses!
One thing I was totally unaware of is the scope of the zoo’s work rehabilitating injured wildlife, primarily large birds of prey. The program began back in the 70s, and today local residents bring in injured birds including eagles, owls, and hawks on a weekly basis.
One of the zoo’s veterinary staff releasing a rehabilitated hawk earlier this year
Bald eagles are probably one of the most well known animals when it come to conservation efforts to save them from extinction. They were declared an endangered species in 1967, but thanks to efforts of conversationalists like those at DickersonPark Zoo, they were officially removed from the endangered list in 2007. The zoo’s rehabilitation team was involved with the rehab and release of over 70 bald eagles in the 80s and 90s. Given that there were under 2,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the US in the 80s, those 70 birds definitely made a difference in helping with repopulation! (They actually JUST released another rehabilitated eagle today!)
One very cool experience that’s available to zoo guests for a really reasonable extra fee is giraffe feeding. (Their website has info on all of the available animal encounters!) I love giraffes (maybe because I’m tall?) but this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to get within a few feet of one. After meeting a four year old giraffe named Millie, I got to watch some training exercises that her keepers had been working on with her (was surprised how similar it is to training a horse!), and then take about a billion selfies while feeding her. I don’t care what anyone else posted on Instagram that day – giraffe selfies win the internet!
Look at how huge her head is compared to my entire upper body!
You may have seen that giraffes recently joined the endangered species list. I can’t imagine a better way for kids to really understand the importance of protecting a species than getting up close to it like I did and having that personal connection!
Even if you’re not springing for the giraffe tour, the giraffe exhibit is still designed to let you get up pretty close because there’s an overlook deck with giraffe food dispensers that’s available to all zoo visitors.
The wind chill was 45 degrees on the day I visited, so I only spent about an hour wandering around after my tour. The zoo is open year round (weather permitting) which makes sense since the staff needs to be there to take care of the animals whether there are a lot of guests or not! I ended up missing an entire section of exhibits thanks to my total whimpiness when it comes to cold weather, so hopefully I can return soon to explore again! Just wandering the park is relaxing – the natural Ozarks scenery is lovely! I’d definitely recommend making sure you have several hours set aside to visit so that you can thoroughly explore.
I spent a big chunk of time in the reptile house since it was nice and warm in there (and I like pretending I’m Harry Potter). It was divided between different environments (desert vs rainforest), and I loved that they had a whole section just for creatures from here in the Ozarks!
Pro Tip: The reptile house is always your friend on super hot or cold days! Yay for climate control!
Given that I used to live a couple of miles from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my bar for animal viewing is obviously set pretty high. No, it’s not Disney, but I appreciated a lot of the details that went into the design of the zoo for a great guest experience, like cool animal art throughout the park and that even though the animals are in enclosures, I was able to find a spot to get fence-less photos of the animals at each exhibit. I especially appreciated that they had several exhibits featuring animals I’m used to only seeing for a few seconds on Disney’s safari ride, which meant I could actually hang out and watch them for as long as I wanted instead of just driving past. The more traditional exhibit was great for animals like the Bongos, which are usually so hidden away that they’re known as the “ghosts of the forest”! I was happy to see that all of the animal habits at this zoo are thoughtfully designed to keep the animals really happy and healthy!
Admission to Dickerson Park Zoo is just $12 for adults and $8 for kids and seniors, but if you are visiting Springfield, MO or live nearby, I would 100% suggest spending a little more and doing one of the animal encounter experiences. There’s a river otter feeding experience that includes watching a training session that’s only $30 for a group of up to 3 people. Zebra feeding is also $30, but doesn’t include the training session. You can barely take 3 people to the movies for that price, so it’s an awesome deal for such a unique experience. (And photo opp! Let’s be honest, we all love awesome things to post on our blogs or social media!) They offer experiences with elephants, tigers, tortoises, eagles… not every animal in the zoo, but pretty close! Tons of zoos and theme parks offer “behind the scenes” tours and encounters, but they tend to be super expensive. I love that Dickerson Park Zoo offer such cool educational experiences at prices that actually make them accessible to most visitors!
If you do plan to visit Dickerson Park Zoo the next time you’re in Springfield, be sure to visit their website for hours, directions, and activity sheets and scavenger hunts you an print for the kids (or yourself!) before your visit. You can also find zoo news and fun animal photos on their Facebook and Instagram!
Thanks to the Springfield CVB, who hooked me up with a press pass to Dickerson Park Zoo, and to all of the zoo staff members who took time out of their day to show me around and share their knowledge!