NYC zoo guide for families in all five boroughs: Fall 2012

We've put together an NYC zoo guide for families, with ideas on everything from scavenger hunts to Halloween-themed fun at the city's five zoos.

 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherBoo at the Zoo at the Bronx Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherPuma at the Queens Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherTeen Interns at the Central Park Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherAmur Tiger and Cubs at the Bronx Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherZoo Camp at the Queens Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherSpur-winged Lapwing and Chicks at the Bronx Zoo
 (Photograph: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photograph: Julie Larsen MaherPatagonian Cavy at the Central Park Zoo
 (Photo: Julie Larsen Maher)
Photo: Julie Larsen Maher

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Because our love for all things NYC zoo is almost as big as our love for fall, we've put together a seasonal NYC zoo guide for families, with ideas on everything from scavenger hunts to Halloween-themed fun at the city's five zoos—one in each borough. Dress in layers, bring some binoculars and leave yourselves plenty of time for your urban safari: It's got all the makings to be your family's most fun adventure of the season.

Hit up a family workshop
All of the city's zoos except the Bronx Zoo are offering a slew of one-off programs that let kids delve deeper into the lives of animals, from the drop-off (Sept 29 at 10am at the Queens Zoo, Sept 30 at 10am at the Prospect Park Zoo) and Celebrate Urban Birds (Nov 3 at 10am at the Prospect Park Zoo, Nov 4 at 10am at the Queens Zoo) workshops to Prospect Park Zoo's Zoo Symphony (Oct 8 at 11am), an exploration of animal sounds, and the Central Park Zoo's Ladybug Release Party (Nov 18 at 9am), a look at how the zoo uses bugs for pest control (yes, really). And because they're so well esteemed, the Staten Island Zoo is bringing back its Dinosaurs and More (Oct 7, Dec 30 at 1:30pm), Breakfast with the Beasts (Nov 11 at 8:30am) and Kid Fun Day (Dec 27 11am–3pm) offerings this fall as well.

Look out for new arrivals
Spring and summer may be the time when zoo babies are born, but autumn is when lots of little ones have their big reveals. New on the scene are a Roosevelt elk at the Queens Zoo, the first born here since 2003; two adorable Patagonian cavies—the largest rodents on earth—and two mini Nubian goats at the Tisch Children's Zoo in Central Park; Amur tiger-cub triplets, born to mom Katharina and first-time dad Sascha, plus spur-winged lapwing chicks and two lemur babies at the Bronx Zoo; three adolescent river otters at the Prospect Park Zoo; and, in the Staten Island Zoo, a baby fennec fox, groundhogs, ducks, red kangaroos, white-faced Scops owls and geese—so many that the zoo is holding a get-to-know you event called (Sept 22 at 1:30pm).

Get in the Halloween (or fall) spirit
Thanks to some imaginative planning, little ones visiting a zoo in the month of October can get a Halloween fix alongside their zoological immersion. The Bronx Zoo launches Boo at the Zoo, its annual October-weekend extravaganza featuring the haunted Habitat Mansion, hayrides, costume parades and pumpkin carving, on the weekend of September 29–30; the best part is that kids donning a costume get free admission with a paying adult. Boo at the Prospect Park Zoo (Oct 27, 28 10am–5:30pm) sports a haunted barn and spooky creatures, as well as face painting and crafts. The after-dark Spooktacular (Oct 20 6–9:30pm, Oct 21 5:30–9pm) transforms the Staten Island Zoo into various corners called Candyland and Costume Contest for a weekend, with a separate evening pumpkin-carving event (Oct 27 6:30–8pm) a week later, while the Queens Zoo's Boo at the Zoo (Oct 27--28 11am–4pm) offers the first 200 zoogoers a free pumpkin to decorate, and pumpkin enrichment (pumpkins filled with tasty treats) for the pumas and Andean bears—alogside a haunted house, "spooky animal presentations" (1:30, 3pm), arts and crafts, and face painting. Families who prefer a less Halloween-y visit may prefer the Central Park Zoo's one-time Fall Fiesta (Oct 28 at 9am), which offers pumpkin carving, animal encounters and fall-themed snacks.

Seek out animal strangers
Sure, we love seeing lions and tigers and bears, but how about Pallas's cats and Henkel's leaf-tailed geckos? We suggest playing a scavenger hunt of sorts, wherein parents do a little homework, then present their kids with a quest to track down, say, five animals they've (probably) never seen before, then find out a couple of things about each. The above-mentioned creatures can be found out at the Prospect Park Zoo. Here are a few more ideas from the other zoos: gelada, fossa, Coquerel's sifaka, white-throated bee-eaters and radiated tortoises (at the Bronx Zoo); scaly-sided margansers and king eiders (at the Central Park Zoo); servals and fennecs (at the Staten Island Zoo); and spectacled bears and pronghorns (at the Queens Zoo).

Sign on to a class series
If your little one finds herself obsessed with zoo visits, sign her up for a class series at a nearby zoo. Six-session Toddler Time classes (ages 2–3, with adult) at the Queens (starting Sept 12, Sept 24 or Nov 7 at 10:30am or noon), Central Park and Prospect Park zoos (starting Sept 25 and 29 at 10, 11:30am at both) introduce tots to a wide range of feathered, furry and scaley animals and engage them with musical games and crafts. A similar program for preschoolers, Kinder Kritters (ages 4–5, with adult), is offered at all three zoos as well (starting Sept 22 at 2pm in Queens, Oct 17 at 1:30pm and Oct 27 at 10am in Central Park, and Feb 2 at 10am in Brooklyn). Of course, you could always create a DIY class series by picking up a zoo membership and treating the kids to all the zoo visits they could possibly want for a year—one WCS membership includes entry to the Bronx, Central Park, Prospect Park and Queens zoos, plus the New York Aquarium on Coney Island—something we've done for many years ourselves.