When was the last time you touched a hippo?
At the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Navarre, Florida, I not only touched a hippo, I pet one. It’s hard to use the word pet to describe an activity that leaves you with something called “blood sweat” on your hands, but pet a hippo I did.
I also watched a mother and baby hippo snuggle, got licked by a giraffe, and learned just how aggressive chimpanzees can be.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo, formerly known as the Northwest Florida Zoo, has recently reopened after previous owners had to close the gates for several months. What was once a sad reminder to locals of difficult economic times has become a symbol of regrowth and possibility. While the 50-acre zoo is still in the process of bringing in new animals and upgrading facilities, a tremendous amount of work has already been done. Zoo visitors today will find a reptile house that isn’t entirely full, but a surprising variety of animals large and small, expected and exotic.
Please Feed The Animals
One of the things that makes the Gulf Breeze Zoo unique is their animal feeding policy. Specifically, they encourage it. Curator Kayte Wanko explained that the zoo is interested in fostering a relationship between the animals and visitors, especially the youngest guests. The owners believe that allowing children to feed the animals approved food will help kids to be less afraid of the animals they share their world with.
On my tour, I was given pellets to feed ducks, giraffe, goats and even a hippo. Hippo feeding is not included in regular admission price or tours, but arrangements can be made by phone before your trip to the zoo.
As you would expect, the Gulf Breeze Zoo has walkways and cement paths that lead you by lions and tigers and monkeys. However, a visit to this zoo would not be complete without a ride on the Safari Line Limited Train.
For $3 per person, the 20 minute narrated train ride takes you through a 20-acre free range preserve. Free range means that the animals are allowed to roam free and, in some cases, that means coming right up to the train if they want. (Wanko explained that they rarely want.) The Safari Line Limited is your best chance to see chimpanzees, gorillas and the hippos I keep going on and on about.
In my defense, when was the last time you got this close to a Nile hippo and her newborn?
The Gulf Breeze Zoo currently has three Nile hippos: mom, baby, and dad. However, dad is now kept away from the female and infant hippo. Instead, he roams free in a large enclosure and plays nice with tourists.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo is a short drive from Pensacola in Santa Rosa County. The zoo is open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adult admission is $12 and children 2-12 years old get in for $8. If you’re spending a family week at the local beaches, consider an afternoon trip to the zoo to add a little variety to your vacation.
All photos by Britt Reints. See more pictures from my visit to Gulf Breeze Zoo on Flickr.