- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

The Lyn P. Meyerhoff Wilderness Area takes up only a couple of acres on the grounds of the Baltimore Zoo, but a trip over its wooden walkways is a trip through Maryland itself.

"Maryland has a wonderful environment," says Roger Birkel, the zoo's executive director. "There are mountains, the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay all in one state. There is a great concern for the environment here, and that gave us the impetus to do an exhibit just about us."

The wilderness area is one where children and adults can see native Maryland species up close. Unobtrusive netting over the area housing birds gives them room to roam. Visitors will find an abundance of hands-on exhibits and an absence of cages and fences, although they are encouraged to stay on the wooden walkways.

"The big difference between the wilderness area and other zoos is you get the idea you are on a trail," Mr. Birkel says. "We want you to feel as though you are walking through the woods."

Young children will particularly love imitating the animals. In the frog area, they can walk across water on giant imitation lily pads. In the bird area, they can climb inside giant models of nests to see how herons build a large, flat home and orioles build a beehive-shaped one. The oriole nest can hold about three children and makes a great photo opportunity.

As the wilderness area goes from the marshlands to the forest, the trees get thicker and there are all kinds of man-made caves and cavelike nooks to explore. One of the caves leads visitors underneath the water where otters swim and play. The walkway has glass overhead and on both sides, giving visitors an underwater view.

Walking through another cave takes visitors past an American black bear. The bear is in a natural, wooded environment, yet safely behind glass.

Passing a waterfall takes visitors to another cave, where the difference between stalagmites and stalactites is explained. A big hit among the boys in the crowd was the skeleton model of a mammoth, which archaeologists believe once roamed Maryland. Children can crawl through the mammoth's rib cage, then crawl inside human-size models of the bats that inhabit Maryland's caves.

Live black bats can be seen through a window, and various species of snakes are on display in the subterranean exhibit.

The caves can be a bit spooky, so visitors might want to rethink this part of the tour if they have very young children.

There is room for children to burn energy, even in the quiet of the forest. A wobbly but safe rope bridge goes through the woods. Deep in the woods is a model of a giant tree, where children can climb up from inside and go down a big slide through the middle.

The wilderness area ends at the Maryland Farmyard, a petting zoo honoring Maryland's farms that has sheep and cattle, hogs and roosters. Children can slide through a silo and see eggs hatching in an incubator.

The highlight of the farmyard, however, is interacting with the animals. A basket of curry combs sits ready for the children to pet the goats and sheep and groom them at the same time.

"We do that so kids can interact without feeding [the animals]," says animal attendant Karen Zukas.

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