For warm and fuzzy low-cost fun, there's nowhere like Missouri, where animals make animal-lovers of all visitors.
If you’ve traveled around the Midwest lately, you’ve heard a lot about Lewis and Clark, and the centennial of the 1904 World’s Fair. But have you encountered any animal magnetism? You could easily spend several days in Missouri’s capital city walking on the wild side.
There’s everything from exotic birds to butterflies and most of the attractions are free, thanks in large part to a St. Louis Zoo-Museum Tax District set up in the 1960s. It’s possible this area of three million residents — that last year drew nearly 14 million visitors — has more free attractions than anywhere in the country.
The first animal exploration allows you to remain in your car. Start your tour with a drive through Lone Elk Park (314/615-4386), a 546-acre preserve where bison, white tail deer, elk and other animals roam freely. Go early and you’re almost certain to see at least some of them. The park located at the edge of the Ozark foothills also offers dramatic hills and thick forests. Take along a picnic lunch for a stop at one of the many trails.
Another kind of ride, on a tram, gives you close-ups of big-headed buffalos, several different kinds of deer and hundreds of other animals at Grant’s Farm (314/843-1700). Yes, that Grant, Ulysses S., who before the Civil War built a log home (open for tours) and farmed a portion of the 281-acre park that is now owned by Anheuser Busch. It’s open from April to October and admission is free, but there’s a small charge for parking.
Year-round, you can see a variety of shows at Grant’s Farm Tier Garten amphitheatre that dramatize the talents of elephants, reptiles, birds of prey and other mammals. There’s also a children’s petting zoo and a nearby stable where visitors can see – and be photographed with – the world-famous, white-tuft-legged Clydesdales. In summer, the Farm runs a Critter Camp day program for ages 5-10 on Tuesday through Friday; call 314/525-0847 to inquire about drop-in programs.
Going to the dogs? You might say that after a visit to The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, known as the Dog Museum (314/821-3647). Founded in 1982, it is this country’s largest fine arts collection devoted wholly to you know who. The artwork, including dog paintings, bronze sculptures and etchings, is housed in the historic Jarville House, an 1853 Greek Revival home that was formerly the estate of Edgar Monsanto Queeny, president of chemical giant Monsanto, Inc.
This museum is not just any old mutt, however. It’s a pedigree, with artworks representing some of the most acclaimed painters and sculptors — and some of the most valuable art — in the world. “Dog art is about as hot as you can get right now,” says Barbara Jedda McNab, executive director. The Dog Museum is open year-round; admission is $5/adult, or $1 for children up to the age of 14.
It’s only a few minutes from Six Flags St. Louis and 45 miles southwest of the city in Gray Summit, but Purina Farms (888/688 PETS, 314/982-1000), open from March through November, is a very different style attraction. And it’s free. For dog-lovers, the farm hosts over 60 dog events each year, including an All Breed Show, Whippet Racing and Dog Agility Trials. There are no cat shows, but there is a 20-foot-tall Victorian style cat house, where you can pet the felines. No elaborate rides here either, but children seem very content to ride a tractor-pulled wagon. City children also seem to delight in such mundane attractions as real-life haylofts with hay tunnels, rope swings and a slide. There’s also an informative Visitors Center and barn full of farm animals, including horses, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. Hang around a while and you can see a large cow being milked.
Another option you have is to visit the more than 350 animals that are typically being cared for at the 130-acre World Bird Sanctuary (636/861-3225). No charge here for close-up looks at Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Eurasian Eagle Owls. Many other creatures are also on display at this thick hardwood forest compound, including snakes, tortoises, a bearded dragon, parrots, cockroaches and giant millipedes. There are also hiking trails, bird feeding stations, a photo blind and picnic shelters. The World Bird Sanctuary, under the direction of Walter C. Crawford (pictured at left) is open daily from 8am to 5pm; the Visitor Center opens at 11am.
It’s not free, but admission is only $7 for adults at the Missouri Botanical Garden (314/577-9400, 800/642-8842). Founded in 1850, it’s the oldest botanical park in the country. There is a special Children’s Garden open seasonally, and a 14-acre traditional Japanese garden that is the largest of its type in North America. Sure, it’s botanical, but other forms of life can be found here as well. Take in the Butterfly House and Education Center, where you step inside a glass dome to share the environment with 1,000 butterflies that create a colorful background as they flit around.
If you have any interest in the big bad wolf, you can arrange a visit to a place internationally known for its work in raising endangered wolves and releasing them back into the wild. It’s the Wild Canid Survival & Research Center (636/938-5900) in Eureka, where the often misunderstood wolf gets a new chance.
Wolves have been trapped, shot and poisoned by private individuals and even government agencies. Bounties used to be paid for them. “For some reason, wolves have always gotten a bad reputation. I guess it starts with the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ in children’s literature,” says Kimberly Scott, assistant director of a center that is the only American Zoo and Aquarium Association-accredited wolf facility in the world.
Popularly known as the Wolf Sanctuary, the 63-acre Wild Canid Survival & Research Center was founded in 1971 by famed zoo figure Marlin Perkins, whose influence is everywhere. There are two other places in the US where wolves are raised but nothing comes close to rivaling the scope of operations here. Various types of wolves roam in large, fenced in-compounds, including the maned wolf from South America and the Mexican gray wolf, the most endangered in the world.
You can’t just walk with the wolves, however. You need to call ahead for a scheduled time as one-hour guided tours are given to groups for a fee of $50. If you happen to be in the area on most Saturdays, there’s an open house with admission at $9. Note that the center is open by appointment only in April and May, traditional months when wolf babies are born.
Of course, if you’re visiting here, you don’t want to miss a long-time stellar attraction: the St. Louis Zoo (314/781-0900, 800/966-8877). With 11,400 animals, it’s universally viewed as one of the finest zoos in the world. Take the Zoo Line Railroad to get an overview of where everything is located. You can cool off in the latest edition [sic], the Penguin and Puffin Coast. The zoo next year is opening its Fragile Forest, an outdoor habitat for chimpanzees, lowland gorillas and orangutans. Oh, yes, did I also mention: it’s free?
Pet and Family-Friendly Lodging & Eats
St. Louis is an animal lover. If you don’t believe it, consider that there are more than 60 hotel rooms that accept pets within 15 minutes of Purina Farms. Clayton on the Park (314/290-1500, 800/323-7500), however, has an even louder bark. The city’s only combined hotel and apartment, Clayton has a VIPet package that includes an aluminum doggie dish with kibbles, fresh water with a mint leaf, a chewable toy and a scarf personalized with the pet’s name, of course. Pets can be walked at Shaw Park across the street. There’s a limit of two dogs and a deposit requirement. The hotel staff also keeps a supply of dog treats on hand for canine guests.
St. Louisians are animal lovers, yes, but not necessarily vegetarians. For low-cost family dining in the St. Louis area, Imo’s Pizza has dominated the landscape for more than 40 years. There are several locations for sit-down dining. If you can’t stand to leave your pet behind, Imo’s also offers carry-out and delivery of St. Louis style pizzas, which generally substitute provolone for the more traditional mozzarella cheese. Lion’s Choice is a popular chain that has freshly prepared sandwiches made with top-round beef, slow roasted on the premises. Super Smokers BBQ which has won several national awards, also has several locations. Diners order at the counter and wait for a waitress to bring their food. There are various family packages.
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