We had the opportunity to visit several towns in western New South Wales, Australia, two years ago and spent a couple of days in Dubbo - a large regional centre. The prime attraction (but by no means the only one!) is just out of town: Western Plains Zoo. Western Plains is a large, open range zoo in which it is possible to see the exhibited wildlife on foot, by car or by bicycle (which can be hired at the zoo).
This zoo is involved in a large number of animal conservation projects - from tigers, to rhinos, birds to primates. We discovered that the zoo is open very early in the morning for guided walks, hosted by volunteers from the Friends of Western Plains Zoo. These walks take you behind the scenes to some of the night enclosures, and also give you the chance to see things like feeding up close. The early morning walks cost extra on top of the daily admission ticket, but it is well worth it. It was difficult getting up at the crack of dawn to get out to the zoo (and have the kids organised!) but what a great time we had! Click here for the early morning walks website (it's really difficult to find just by browsing from the Zoo web page!)
Bendy went berserk over seeing the giraffes (her then-favourite animal). She nearly popped out of her skin with excitement - AND we got to see them being fed up close. She also nearly went mad over the camels (though we don't really know why - she'd never shown much interest in them before, or since...). The guide we had was excellent. She was fun, knowledgeable, and friendly - willing to answer questions, pick up the kids for a closer look etc. We had a look through the rhinoceros night yards, amazed to see so many of these critically endangered creatures in one place. The only animal we really couldn't see were the zebras - they were in quarantine due to an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia that brought any horse-related businesses to a standstill.
The tour went for a couple of hours, and was over just prior to the main zoo gates opening for general admission. While there were lots of people (in small groups) doing the early morning guided tours, it felt as if we had the place to ourselves. We spent most of the rest of the day exploring the zoo to its full extent (the tour doesn't cover everything!) and it was a great opportunity for our kids to see endangered species (both exotic and native) in a somewhat natural habitat. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we wandered at our leisure around the zoo, chatting about the animals, about conservation and appreciating the magnificent diversity of the natural world. We caught the hippopotamus talk and feed (a daily event, not part of the early morning tour) which was fantastic, and had the kids gripped throughout.
We highly recommend the early morning walks at Western Plains Zoo! Next time - which might be a while away - I'd consider staying at the Zoofari Lodge and have the whole wildlife-at-night experience as well.