Looking for a fun place to hang out with friends? Want to learn more about animals? Interested in exploring ecosystems of the Northwest? Whether you are visiting for recreation, on a school trip, as a volunteer, or for an art project, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium is the place for you.
As a child, I remember thinking that the drive down to Tacoma to visit the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium was tediously long. However, when we carpooled down on Thursday, it seemed to take no time to reach the wooded park that surrounds the zoo. This change in perception could be due to maturity but it could also be the result of traveling with a entertaining group of people. Upon entering the zoo, we were greeted with a slightly hazy view of Mt. Rainier. We began by exploring the aquarium, which houses a huge range of marine creatures: everything from sharks to seahorses to exotic fish species. I enjoyed petting a stingray in a touching tank and found that it was surprisingly soft (don’t worry; its stinging barbs were removed). The exhibits were designed to appear like the ecosystems the animals naturally live in. For example, the tropical fish tank looked like a Caribbean beach. In the Puget Sound section of the aquarium, a small child struggled to say the word “anemone”. She repeated variations of the word over and over while her mother tried to help her out. On the upper level of the aquarium, a large exhibit featured the long extinct helicoprion shark which had a ridge of teeth down the center of its mouth like a buzzsaw. Having never heard of this species of shark before, I was intrigued by its unique anatomy and how that likely influenced its behaviors.
When we emerged from the aquarium building, we wandered over to the Asian Forest Sanctuary area of the zoo. Many of the animals were sleeping, notably a tiger that looked like a gigantic house cat. The two clouded leopards were much more energetic. A couple of zookeepers played with them in their exhibit which highlighted the leopards amazing agility. A zookeeper would throw a wicker ball and one of the leopards would bound after it while the other paced back and forth on a branch observing the scene.
After a brief visit with an elephant, we migrated toward the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater for a show with Indiana Bones, Barckeologist (performed by Herald the dog). The show, titled Indiana Bones and the Golden Treasure, was free with zoo admission and hundreds of people of all ages attended. Zoo staff turned performers started out by teaching the crowd of children the call and response “Explore – Outdoors!” From there the audience was immersed in a geocaching race between the arrogant adventurer First to Find and Indiana Bones’ team of hopeful explorers. Along the way, the enterprising teams encountered an impressive range of animals. A king vulture swooped over the crowd eliciting screams from surprised audience members. A skunk emerged from a tree stump but luckily did not spray anyone. Upwards of ten animals took part in the show. My favorite animal was the two-toed sloth which was carried on and off stage with its arms flopping behind its head in a most amusing manner. All in all, the show was a wonderful combination of information about animals and geocaching, actual animal appearances, and humor, all tied together by an engaging plot.
Later we explored the Rocky Shores and Arctic Tundra sections of the zoo. I was impressed by the sheer size of the walruses (I always want to call them walri) as they can weigh over two tons. Another large animal we saw was a polar bear. It was standing close to the viewing window chewing on a very large bone that looked like it could have been a fem
ur. To conclude our visit, we stopped by the red wolves exhibit. A zookeeper tossed bits of meat into the enclosure while telling us about Point Defiance’s role in conserving the dwindling species. The red wolves were hunted to the brink of extinction, and in the 1970’s there were only 17 pureblood red wolves left. Scientists made the decision to remove those wolves from the wild and start a breeding program to increase the population. Now some red wolves have been released back into the wild. One of the main challenges of reestablishing the population is maintaining genetic diversity among the wolves. The wolves living in the zoo were very energetic, bounding around looking for the zookeeper’s snacks.
I thoroughly enjoyed all parts of our trip to the zoo. Observing animals and learning about their habits and habitats is very fun. I recommend visiting if you are interested in animals, biology, and conservation, or if you just want to have a good time.
Special Programs and Youth Opportunities:
The Explore Outdoors program offers a variety of opportunities both at the zoo and around the area where you can learn about the animals and ecosystems of the northwest.
Geocaching Adventures – As described above, Point Defiance runs shows twice daily through Sept. 1 that include many animal appearances. More info here.
Explore the Shore – Held at Owen beach during low tides, this program lets you become a citizen scientist and catalog the species you find. More info here.
Plant Nature Walks – Learn more about the plants at the zoo with a Youth Volunteer. More info here.
Estuary Escapades – Do crafts while learning about local estuaries from Youth Volunteers. More info here.
Check out the impressive array of summer camps offered by clicking here.
Volunteer at Point Defiance:
There are three programs divided by age for youth ages 11-18. If you are interested in increasing and sharing your knowledge of animals, conservation, and the environment; and you want to gain experience volunteering in a zoo and or an aquarium, then check out the volunteer program page here.
Adults – $17
Children (under 13) – $13
Note: Pierce County residents receive a $2 discount on tickets since they support Point Defiance through taxes.
Getting There Via Bus:
Note – It takes around two hours to bus to Tacoma from Seattle so this would be a good trip to find a carpool.
Take a bus into Seattle then catch the 595 and transfer to the 10.
- Sarah, SCA intern