Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of day trips the news staff will take during the summer of 2017 to highlight lesser known or unknown tourist spots just miles from town. Travel with the reporter as they experience the locale and share it with you in their own words.

BRIDGEPORT — A light drizzle fell from an overcast gray sky Friday morning in Bridgeport, just 15 miles from Westport Town Hall.

Despite the soft drops of rain and the brisk air, cooler than normal for Connecticut in June, crowds, comprised mostly of elementary school-aged children, were moving briskly from one enclosure to the next at the Beardsley Zoo, gasping and engaging in excited banter about the animals mere feet in front of them that previously they had seen only on television.

But it was not the children who were happily surprised.

“Oh my God, these are huge,” a man of around 30-years-old — who could be overheard explaining moments before that he had taken a rare day off work to accompany his two young children — childishly exclaimed as he rounded a corner and the presence of mountainous bison, separated by a metal gate just small enough to make one question its utility, commanded his attention.

He was not the lone adult to regress at the sight of a particularly majestic looking animal. I, too, had marveled hardly a minute before at the size of the bison — one of which I had never seen in real life — and the coarse hide visible in spots beneath malting fur still hanging on in patches on its back.

In other ways, too, my first trip in close to two decades — then as an elementary school kid — to one of Connecticut’s hidden gems in the state’s largest city, brought me back.

As I walked accompanied by the nonprofit’s Director of Development Jessica Summers and Zoo Spokesperson Lisa Claire, the former asked me what I remembered from that trip years ago.

More Information

Beardsley Zoo

1875 Noble Ave., Bridgeport, 06610

203-394-6565

beardsleyzoo.com

The zoo is open daily from from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The zoo’s indoor carousel, modeled after the historic Pleasure Beach amusement park carousel, is open daily 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.

The gift shop and cafe are open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, while the Rainforest building is open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily.

Admission: Adult $15, Children (3 to 11) $12, Seniors (over 62) $11, under 3 is free

The zoo is open all but three days a year — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — and is located within Beardsley Park, a 100-acre plot of land donated by the farmer James Beardsley in 1878.

Immediately I recalled a prairie dog enclosure in which visitors could crawl through underground tunnels and poke their heads into the exhibit — protecting from the animals by plexiglass viewing cylinders — for an intimate view of the animals.

Summers was not surprised by my answer. The zoo’s prairie dog, with their uncannily human mannerism, are one of its biggest draws for children and adults. Summers’ husband is no exception.

She remembered one visit to the zoo with her husband on which he decided to crawl into one of the four, child-sized viewing tunnels, and nearly got stuck. From the edge of the exhibition, Summers saw her husband’s smile fade into claustrophobic fear.

“He stood up and he said, ‘I can’t get down,’ ” Summers said, as she laughed, “I said, ‘I’m leaving you, I’m not going to get someone to come and say my grown husband is stuck in the exhibit.’ ”

Her husband was soon able to navigate his way out of the narrow cranny.

The bison and the prairie dogs are just two of more than 300 species of primarily North and South American animals located on the property.

“What we’re here for is conservation, education and entertainment. We want people to have a great time, but zoos today are truly arks. They are here to sustain animal populations due to poaching, loss of habitat, climate change, that makes animals endangered in the real world,” said Claire.

The zoo has helped to restore the population of the Amur leopard — which was believed to be as low as 26 in the wild at its lowest — has released rehabilitated wolves into a North Carolina sanctuary, artificially inseminated a three-legged ocelot that would not have been able to procreate in the wild

“You could technically say every animal in here is endangered due to habitat loss,” said zookeeper Ryan Paoletti, who works in the zoo’s Rainforest exhibit, where the Brazilian ocelot lives alongside howler monkeys, blood-sucking vampire bats, a three-toed sloth and pygmy marmosets, the world’s smallest monkey.

The zoo also donates a portion of the cost of admission toward saving endangered species elsewhere in the world.

Recent contributions were made to help extricate Vaquita porpoises from their home in the Gulf of Mexico, where populations were ravaged to the point of near-extinction by illegal fishing, in order to stabilize their population in captivity and, hopefully, re-release into the wild in the future.

Beardsley is the only zoo in the state accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums based on, according to Summers, a rigorous examination of the health and living conditions of the animals, guest experience, and evaluation of staff.

The animals and facility — which welcomes roughly 280,000 visitors a year and was built in 1922 — is maintained by a group of roughly 40 full-time staff, with the help of roughly 100 volunteers serving in a variety of functions, from docents to gardeners, to educators.

“At a nonprofit a big volunteer corps makes things go,” Clair said.

Also key at a nonprofit, are donations, though Summers said many visitors view the zoo more as a theme park, along the lines of a Lake Compounce, as opposed to an organization dedicated to conservation, education, research and recreation.

“I think people need to understand we’re not run by the state, or run by the city. We’re a private nonprofit, so everything that comes in goes back to feeding our animals and taking care of our species.” Summers said.

Also problematic, according to Summers, is a misconception that because animals are in captivity, they are necessarily mistreated.

“I think there’s a need for people to be concerned, to make sure that zoos like ours are being accredited, that there’s not a roadside zoo with animals not being well-maintained. We’re not pulling animals out of the wild, that’s not a zoo’s endgame. We’d rather get them back in the wild. We always want to invite those people here,” Summers said.

“Come hear the story of what’s really going on here.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1

Adventures close to home | Trip 1