The state may be small, but Connecticut boasts animal attractions on land and water – ideal for surf ‘n’ turf safaris. See Siberian tigers, red wolves and Andean bears at Connecticut’s only zoo. Feed an alpaca and meet Connecticut’s official state groundhog. Learn how aquarium trainers work with beluga whales. Take an eagle watch cruise on the Connecticut River, a seal watch cruise on Long Island Sound, a wagon ride through a field of bison and much more.
Below are some highlights of a dozen animal attractions in Connecticut to plan your own safari tour.
Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport is home to more than 300 animals, including endangered and threatened species. It is the only animal facility in the state with Siberian tigers, Andean condors, Andean bears, red wolves, maned wolves, golden lion tamarins and howler monkeys.
Highlights include an indoor rain forest exhibit, a prairie dog exhibit with pop-up viewing areas and a new bald eagle exhibit. The zoo is open year-round for self-guided tours and special events.
The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk features animals from Long Island Sound and the rivers and streams of the watershed. Visitor favorites include harbor seals, sand tiger sharks, green and loggerhead sea turtles, river otters and jellyfish. There are changing exhibits, too, with animals from other parts of the world. On view through February 2012 is a family of meerkats, a species native to the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa.
Mystic Aquarium in Mystic showcases marine life from all over the world. It is the only aquarium in New England with beluga whales and one of four aquariums in North America with Steller sea lions, the largest of all sea lions.
Don’t miss the one-acre outdoor Arctic Coast exhibit, home to three beluga whales, and the Pribilof Islands exhibit, home to six Steller sea lions including Astro, who waddled onto land and joined an elementary school walkathon.
Other highlights are the African penguin freshwater exhibit; Kids’ Cave, offering close-up views of Moray eels, barracuda and other inhabitants of a coral reef; and touch pools with bamboo sharks and rays. California sea lion shows are offered daily and included with aquarium admission. For an additional fee, visitors can wade in the water with a beluga whale, participate in a whale training session, visit with a penguin and explore the aquarium on family overnights
Both aquariums are open year-round.
The Lutz Children’s Museum in Manchester is one of several Connecticut museums that exhibit permanently injured wild animals that cannot be released. Animals featured in daily programs at the Lutz include a flemish giant rabbit, chinchilla, ball python and crested gecko. Museum resident Chuckles VII, the state’s official groundhog, comes out of hiber - nation on Feb. 2, looks for her shadow and makes the call – long winter or early spring.
The New Britain Youth Museum at Hungerford Park has 100 different species, from wild turkeys to barnyard animals. Animal presentations take place on Saturdays.
The United Technologies Wildlife Sanctuary at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford provides a home for injured wildlife, unwanted pets, confiscated illegal pets and non-native species, such as tarantulas, scorpions and snakes that arrived in shipments of lumber or fruit. Animal presentations are offered daily.
Winter Wildlife Cruises
Connecticut is a popular winter destination for eagles and seals. Eagles need open water to find food, so they migrate from Canada to the lower Connecticut River Valley, where the river does not freeze over. Seals come from the coast of Maine to Long Island Sound, for the warmer water and abundance of fish.
For prime viewing of these winter residents, make reservations for an eagle watch and seal watch cruise.
In February and March, Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel sponsors twohour eagle-watch cruises departing from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam. The lower Connecticut River Valley population of bald eagles is the largest concentration of wintering eagles in Connecticut.
Migrating harbor seals have been spotted at more than 20 different sites in Long Island Sound. In March, Sea Mist Thimble Island Cruise offers 1-1/2-hour seal watch cruises around the Thimble Islands.
On weekends in February and March, the University of Connecticut’s Project Oceanology at Avery Point in Groton offers seal watch cruises. The 2-1/2-hour cruises in Fisher’s Island Sound take place around low tide, when seals are hauled out on the rocks.
From mid-December through early April, the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk runs 2-1/2-hour Winter Creature Cruises for viewing migrating waterfowl and seals around the Norwalk islands in Long Island Sound.
Connecticut’s only drive-through safari is at the Action Wildlife Foundation in Goshen, in the Litchfield Hills. Animals on view behind fences include watusi cattle, fainting goats, Persian red sheep, ostriches, yaks, zebras, a zonkey (half zebra, half donkey) and other species from around the world. Visitors can also see taxidermy specimens in the museum and feed baby farm animals in the petting zoo. Action Wildlife is open April through October.
Home On the Range
No Connecticut safari would be complete without a visit to Creamery Brook Bison in Brooklyn, the state’s largest bison farm, and Safe Haven Farm in Hampton, the state’s largest alpaca farm. The farms are seven miles apart in northeastern Connecticut.
Safe Haven Farm has more than 130 alpacas, pack animals native to the Andes Mountains of South America. Suri alpacas have long wavy fleece; huacaya alpacas have fluffy fleece. Their fleece is warmer than sheep’s wool, soft as cashmere and hypoallergenic.
Adult alpacas and their babies (crias) can be seen in the fields and in the barns. They hum when relaxed, scream and bray when alarmed and yip like excited dogs when visitors feed them alfalfa treats. Alpacas have no front top teeth, so they can eat from your hand without nipping.
Safe Haven Farm is open year-round, Thursdays through Sundays, and by appointment. Alpaca yarn and apparel is for sale in the Country Store. Creamery Brook Bison has a herd of 100 American bison (buffalo), a North American species that numbered 60 million in 1492, 541 in 1889 and 300,000 today. The animal is raised for its meat, which has a lower fat content than chicken, beef or pork.
Forty-minute narrated wagon tours to the fields where the buffalo roam are offered at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays, July through September, and at least once a month in other seasons.
The bison approach the wagon to get grain, a rich treat provided only during tours. Their regular diet is grass, silage (fermented hay or corn) and hay. Bison calves are in the fields with adults all year-round, but spring is the best time to see the 35- to 40-pound newborns with orange colored fur.
Bison will back away if you reach out from the wagon; they will not bite. But the ill-tempered animals will charge without warning, so visitors are not allowed to get out of the tractordrawn wagon while in the bison fields.
Creamery Brook Bison is open Mondays through Saturdays, April through October; Wednesdays through Saturdays, November through March; and by appointment. Creamery Brook Bison meat is for sale in the gift shop.