New York City might be one of the country's most urban environments, but the five boroughs are still home to a startling array of animals. Discover elephants, gorillas, piranhas and many other wonders at the City's zoos and aquariums, all of which feature educational exhibitions and family-friendly programming. From the toothier residents of the Bronx Zoo to the graceful swimmers of the New York Aquarium at Coney Island, these attractions offer a slice of wildlife—and conservation—right here in NYC. For information on where to go and what to see, read on.
The largest metropolitan zoo in the US, this attraction is a must-see for anyone who loves wildlife. The 265-acre site is home to more than 6,000 animals, which are housed in re-creations of their natural habitats. Visitors can marvel at the elephants of Southeast Asia, the snow leopards of the Himalayas and the lemurs of Madagascar. Those who prefer to explore the long-extinct creatures of yesteryear should know that the zoo's popular dinosaur exhibition has returned this year as well, allowing visitors to enjoy close encounters with the massive lizard- and bird-like creatures of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic and Permian periods. (Don't worry—they're mechanical.) The biggest draws, however, might be the attraction's newest arrivals: two baby gorillas and a baby-boy baboon, the first born in NYC in 13 years.
Central Park Zoo
The Central Park Zoo—an ecological wonderland located mere steps away from Midtown Manhattan—is a microcosm of the world's wildlife population. The zoo houses more than 150 species of animals, including polar bears, penguins, red pandas and snow leopards. A particular favorite of many zoo goers is the sea lion feeding, which takes place three times daily at a pool in the middle of the Central Garden. The Tisch Children's Zoo, added in 1997, offers educational programs for children, a petting zoo and the Enchanted Forest, home to birds, turtles and frogs.
Prospect Park Zoo
There are lots of animals to see at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo—the sea lions and kangaroos are always among the favorites. Other residents of the zoo's 12 acres include the hamadryas baboon, the red panda and the emu. Visitors can also view educational displays to learn how and why some animals change colors, while the barn has plenty of friendly animals to pet and feed. Among the cutest inhabitants are twin Geoffroy's marmosets, native to the Brazilian rainforest, whose presence here is part of the zoo's efforts to help stabilize animal populations that come from habitats under threat.
Visit the Queens Zoo to see playful pumas, Andean bears and the world's smallest deer. Situated within Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the 5-acre attraction features a variety of feedings and educational opportunities. Kids will especially love the domestic animals in the farm exhibit, where young ones can meet friendly farm animals up close, including pigs, sheep and three enormous bunnies—Flemish giant rabbits, which can grow up to 26 pounds.
Staten Island Zoo
The Staten Island Zoo might not be the largest or most exotic zoo around (its nickname is the "biggest little zoo"), but it is highly educational and acclaimed for its Reptile Wing, or "Serpentarium," which houses an extensive collection of rattlesnakes. The zoo also cares for many warm-blooded creatures, with hundreds of species represented. It is also the home of Charles G. Hogg, aka Staten Island Chuck—New York City's now-retired and famously irascible groundhog-meteorologist, who used to predict the length of winter every February 2. Now Chuck's daughter, Charlotte Jr., does the honors.
New York Aquarium
This aquarium—the oldest continually operating example in the US—remains a must-see destination on Coney Island's celebrated Boardwalk. Visitors will be charmed by all manner of sea life, including seals, walruses, red-bellied piranhas, rays and an electric eel named Wattson. Long-range planners can look forward to 2016 for the opening of Ocean Wonders: Sharks!, which will feature blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, sand tiger sharks and wobbegongs, a carpet shark native to the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans. More immediate gratification can be had from viewing the daily penguin and otter feedings.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
Attention, bird-watchers! This is the place to check out the feathered creatures of your dreams. With more than 330 species of birds on the premises, plus a salt marsh, woods and freshwater ponds, this wildlife refuge, set on 9,155 breathtaking acres, is like an oasis in the middle of New York City. Even if bird-watching isn't your thing, there's plenty to do, including hiking, exploring the nesting habits of turtles and admiring the vast array of wildflowers, moths and butterflies.
Prospect Park Audubon Center
Located within the Prospect Park Boathouse, this is the first urban-environment Audubon Center in the nation. Filled with interactive exhibitions on wildlife and environmental conservation, the site features Madagascar hissing cockroaches, an albino black rat snake named Chester, tips on how you can help the environment and programming like fishing clinics, bird-watching and nature hikes.
Charles A. Dana Discovery Center
This hall at the head of Harlem Meer—the park's second-largest man-made body of water—is home to a wide variety of facilities for visitors in the northern end of Central Park, including the park's only environmental discovery center, an office that loans out fishing gear for use in the Meer and a space that hosts children's workshops. There's also an ongoing exhibition, Ponds, Pipes, and People: Water in Central Park, that explores the area’s watery habitats.