Located along Durham Highway 2, just east of Liberty Street, is the Bowmanville Zoo. The entrance is rather unassuming, marked by a single sign and an unpaved parking lot, and if you’re not really paying attention you might even miss it.
Despite its quiet appearance, the zoo is without a doubt one of Durham’s hidden gems. As a resident of the neighbouring town of Courtice for the past four years, I have heard nothing but good things about it from friends and family. My school-aged son has even been there several times on class trips. But until this summer, I had never been there myself.
Now that I’ve gone, I have to ask myself … what took me so long?
The Bowmanville Zoo proves the age-old adage that good things come in small packages. Founded in 1919 and recognized as Canada’s oldest private zoo, the Bowmanville Zoo’s 55 acres are home to over 300 animals.
Amazingly, some of these animals even enjoy worldwide fame!
An Accessible Zoo
If I had to choose only one thing about the Bowmanville Zoo to recommend it, I would say that it’s accessible.
What does that mean? To start with, it’s only about an hour east of Toronto. And because it is smaller than its Metro Toronto cousin, the entire space can be covered in one visit—without the sore backs and aching feet that parents (of small children especially) know all too well.
The washrooms are never far away, and neither are designated eating areas, concession stands or a respectable-sized cafe, with a fair selection of meals and snacks.
To add variety and keep young visitors entertained, the Bowmanville Zoo offers both a traditional playground and a Funland—an enclosed space with carnival-style rides. There is also a respectable-sized splash pad, and elephant and camel rides.
In addition to the zoo’s signature ANIMATHEATRE, which I’ll talk about further on, guests can ride a tram through Expedition Predator, an up-close and personal adventure of some of the world’s most fierce predators.
A Blend of the Exotic and the Familiar
More than 300 animals are residents of the Bowmanville zoo. We saw smaller, well-loved species like gibbons, baboons and lemurs, as well as larger animals like llamas, zebras, jaguars, lions and Bengal tigers.
Some of the more exotic varieties we saw include nilgai (a type of Asian antelope), Barasingha deer (found in India and Nepal), and a Malayan tapir.
A unique feature of the Bowmanville Zoo is that many of its gentler herbivores are within arms’ reach of visitors. They can even be fed: food pellets are sold both in canisters within the zoo and at the entrance in larger bags, with the proceeds all going back into animal upkeep.
For parents worried about little fingers, have no fear: these animals are gentle nibblers!
Free of charge, and every two hours beginning at twelve noon, is the zoo’s signature ANIMATHEATRE, held in a special circus-style arena.
It’s dark when you enter (but not so dark you can’t see where you’re going), and the sounds of the jungle reverberate around the theatre while a white screen projects fun facts for adults and older children to read as everyone finds their seats.
When the lights came up we were treated to a great show. We were introduced to a number of different animals by name, and the keepers even paraded some of them up and down the aisles. There was also an equine ballet, leaping cats and Limba, the Asian elephant who paints a portrait … more or less … of one lucky audience member.
Some of the stars of ANIMATHEATRE are stars of the big screen as well. We met Petey the lemur and Betsy the zebra, both of whom were featured in the movie Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
In fact, more Hollywood stars can be found at the Bowmanville Zoo which, I’ve learned, is considered one of the top sources for trained animals. There are Cesar and Bongo, the lions of The Ghost and the Darkness (co-starring Michael Douglas), camels that appeared alongside Antonio Banderas in The Thirteenth Warrior, and Baghera, the black jaguar from the television show Peter Benchley’s Amazon … to name just a few.
Sadly Jonas, the beautiful and beloved Bengal tiger who starred in The Life of Pi, passed away recently and is sorely missed by all at the zoo.
A Call to Action for Endangered Species
An overarching message of both the ANIMATHEATRE show and the zoo in general is that of endangered species protection. Many of the exhibits, (the elephants in particular) have information boards and plaques that describe the threat of extinction which these animals face.
But what I appreciated the most, as both a parent and an animal lover, is that the Bowmanville Zoo provided a number of ideas for what me and my son can do to help, and how we can get involved. They are simple and tangible things that anyone can do every day (for more information, visit the zoo’s website and Facebook pages).
It’s a great message to send, especially to kids, and it highlights the overall feel I got from the zoo—that it cares! It cares about its own animals, and about the animals facing extinction in the wild. There’s a real sense of heart at this zoo.
The Little Zoo that Could
I was really impressed with the Bowmanville Zoo. It was just the right size, with just the right variety of adventure and excitement. My son and I had a great time together, and we learned a lot.
I wish I had taken the opportunity to visit much sooner, but now that I know what I was missing, you can bet I’m going to make it a regular spot for a family outing.