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Get up close and personal with Riverbanks' animals on adventure tours

Megan Sexton Megan Sexton
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Ever wanted to look a flamingo straight in the eye?

How about getting an up-close look at a ringtail lemur as he sunbathes? Or hiding a grizzly bear's food and watching him search for it?

Riverbanks Zoo and Garden's Adventure Tours. The Saturday tours let small groups go behind the scenes at Riverbanks -- one of the country's best zoos -- to get a glimpse of how the keepers care for some of the more than 2,000 animals who live in the Columbia zoo.

"It gives a look at Riverbanks Zoo that you don't normally get to see. It's something special for a family to do together," said Katie Mixon, the zoo's coordinator of interpretive programs. "It also helps the public gain understanding of what we do here. We want people to feel that this zoo belongs to all of us."

The tours, designed for families with children 8 years old and up, visit different areas of the zoo on different Saturdays. For example, one week you can see lions or tigers, black-footed cats and animal kittens on the Big Cat tour. Another week you could meet the four African elephants and learn from the keepers about what it takes to care for them. A grizzly bear session lets you see the animals being trained and offers a chance to help the keepers hide the bears' food.

On a recent Saturday, we checked out the flamingo tour, where bird keeper Christine Talleda invited us to sit around the pond and wait for the curious flamingos to come join us.

And they did.

One of the larger flamingos, named Pigpen, was particularly interested in the four of us, coming over to get a closer look and taking a few nips at our hair and clothing. (Don't worry, the big pink birds don't have teeth.) A smaller flamingo -- Pinky -- also came by to visit.

Afterwards, we checked out the Madagascar tour, which offers a chance to go behind the scenes to see where the geckos and lemurs live.

Inside the Animal Reptile Complex, you'll have a chance to see what happens behind-the-scenes at one of the country's leading gecko breeding programs. Riverbanks has hatched more than 1,000 geckos, and some of them are at zoos all over the country.

The amazing creatures have toe pads that let them hang on (even upside down) to just about any surface, skin that blends in with the trees and greenery, and a tail that look like a leaf. Several types of geckos are on display, including the Satanic leaf-tailed gecko (one look at the horns over this guy's eyes and you'll know how he gets his name).

The Madagascar tour also includes a visit to Lemur Island to see the ringtail and red-ruffed lemurs. The ringtails were up in the tree when we first arrived, but moved down to frolic around the island. We even caught one sun-bathing (but we didn't see any "stink-fighting" -- another of their favorite activities).

"I think this is one of our most special tours because beside going to Madagascar, this is the only place you're going to see these geckos and the lemurs," Mixon said.

One of the highlights of our day at Riverbanks was a visit to the zoo's kitchen, where workers prepare meals for each animal. A card is kept for each, which includes specifics on the amount and type of food each animal receives, along with when it should eat.

The lions get 1.3 kilos of food a day. The Galapagos tortoise gets 1,400 grams of carrots and apples. There were containers of sunflower seeds, mixed nuts, fruits, worms, celery -- and on and on. One of the workers was weighing meat, that day's meal for Dimitri, the zoo's male tiger. Another was chopping eggs and measuring worms for the birds.

"We make sure the animals' habitat and food is like what they would have in the wild," Mixon said.

A trip to Riverbanks is a must-do for anybody visiting Columbia. And the behind-the-scene Adventure Tours make a visit to this world-class zoo even better.

About the tours

When: Most Saturdays. The full schedule is on the website. Tours last 1 to 2 hours.

Reservations: Required. Tour space is limited. Most tours accommodate 12, some are smaller. The African Adventure tour accommodates up to 25.

Cost: $27; $22 for Riverbanks members

Ages: Children ages 8 and older are permitted on tour. All children younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Tours available: Big cats (lions or tigers, black-footed cats and animal kittens); flamingo; grizzly bear; Madagascar tour (lemurs and geckos); elephants.

Exception: The African Adventure tour is $15 and is available Tuesday through Friday by pre-registration only. Call (803) 779- 8717 ext. 1113.

Click here for reservations and more information, or call (803) 779-8717 ext. 1113.

Megan Sexton
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.