Norman's Little River Zoo is home to nearly 400 animals

You can pet a porcupine, feed a kangaroo and get friendly with a 17-foot albino Burmese python at Norman's Little River Zoo, 3405 S.E. 120th.

Just south of busy Highway 9, the zoo sits amid 50 heavily wooded acres in the cross timber forest, which the zoo claims is one of the last remaining ancient forests on the continent. Opened in 1996, the zoo's almost 400 animals represent about 100 species.

Visitors explore the grounds on 90-minute guided tours that weave through the trees on rustic, dirt-and-mulch-covered trails. The zoo provides for incredibly close access to the animals as they patrol their domains, and the enthusiastic zookeepers showcase the unique attributes and abilities each species uses to survive in the wild. Be sure to check out the serval's "night eyes," which help protect the African wildcat from blindside attacks.

Many of the animals who call the park home have been rescued or adopted from individuals unable to care for them, medical research laboratories, abusive homes or other unfavorable circumstances. Zoo staff work to "bring people, animals and nature together to teach how we are all connected" by relaying the personal stories of how many of the animals came to live there.

For example, American black bears Blossom and Delilah were orphaned as cubs when their mothers were killed by poachers. At around 400 pounds each, they are the zoo's biggest residents. One of the smaller inhabitants, a 107-year-old Texas gopher tortoise named Herman, is the oldest.

The rural setting provides for unexpected animal encounters. I witnessed a wild raccoon family invading the turkey pen during my tour, and mom and babies had to be shooed away by a zookeeper.

Kids ages 5 to 14 can work alongside employees as part of the zoo's Junior Zookeeper camps. A hands-on experience, campgoers interact with zoo animals, learning the ins and outs of caring for the exotic creatures.
Little River Zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and guided tours last about 90 minutes. Admission is $8 for adults 12 and up, $5 for children 3 to 11, and $6 for seniors.
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