Since kids came into our life we quickly recognised how valuable it is to have a zoo membership, giving us unlimited access to the big three, Werribee Open Plains Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary. All three are great in their own way; with Melbourne Zoo being the main attraction with its diverse range of animals and occasional concerts; Werribee for the African experience and open safari tour; but the best by far, for my mind, is Healesville Sanctuary.
The price to get into the zoos isn’t cheap for a family, so you always feel like you need to make the most out of it by cramming in all the exhibits and animals. But this usually means rushing through them, ticking them off as if on a orienteering course, and thus not actually stopping to see them for the amazing creatures they are. After all they are primarily being held in captivity for our amusement, so we should be taking the time to fully admire them! Having a membership enables you to capitalise on the time you have there, it doesn’t matter if you only visit a quarter of the zoo because you can come back another time and see the rest at no extra cost. In addition the memberships help the zoos invest more into conservation programs for various species, so you are giving back to the animals we all ogle during our visits.
As I mentioned, Healesville Sanctuary (HS) is my favourite to visit based on a number of factors. Firstly for us it is only 20 minutes from home, so it is an easy and accessible spot for a morning or afternoon outing with the kids. Sometimes as parents it’s too hard to think of new activities to do with the kids, so in times like that we always default back to a trip to HS. Geographical reasons aside, as not everyone if blessed with living near HS, there is much more to this place that makes it great.
The sleepy koala from our close encounter
We always try and get there as early as possible, just after opening time if we can help it. This way you practically get the place to yourself and you can enjoy the animals and the playgrounds in relative peace, before the main hoards arrive from around 11am. Some of our best experiences have been as a result of getting there early. Once the kids had a unique one-on-one experience at the dingo exhibit where a keeper was visiting the dingos and talked with us about how she used to look after them. The dingos were very active and it was great that she took the time to talk to Fletch and Immy about them.
Similarly we visited the parrots enclosure early one morning to find we were the only ones there with one of the keepers. She had the old Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo on her shoulder giving him some snacks, so we went over and she also kindly talked to the kids about the old cockatoo whilst it fed from my hand. Another one off experience was us able to watch a Bower Bird build its nest, decorating it with up-cycled blue artefacts. This experience was especially memorable as it was not part of an enclosure, but a wild Bower Bird just off one of the quieter paths. A keeper saw us showing the kids and came over and talk to us about this bird and how they had been keeping track of his progress.
Fletch getting as close as possible in the Reptile Building
It’s fair to say the staff at the HS are fantastic, those were just a few of the many interactions we’ve had with the keepers. I don’t really have a comparison to Melbourne or Werribee as I can’t recall ever having a chat with any keepers at either, probably due to how busy they are and the times of day we visit. At HS there is always a staff member or two walking around to help with directions or information and if you’re lucky you can cross ones that will be walking dingos or wombats, or carrying lizards or snakes around. I’ve even stopped and talked with some keepers moving baby possums and sugar gliders who needed a check up and they were glad to stop and show the kids and explain all about them
Reflecting on our best memories at HS usually involves the animals getting up close and friendly. One wombat out for his morning walk tried to climb into our pram in search for food (the kids’ snacks were in the bottom). Fletcher’s favourite though is the snakes and he loves it when he finds a keeper carrying one around. He was a bit braver when he was younger going up and patting them, but I think after watching a couple of documentaries he has become more weary and hangs back not wanting to get too close. Unless of course we are in the reptile enclosure when he practically kisses the glass to be as close as possible.
Strolling through the Wallaby Enclosure
HS have just updated and opened the new Kangaroo enclosure, which I am excited to see, and what I love about this area is that you get walk amongst them. It’s probably more accurate to say the kangaroos are free to walk amongst us in the exhibit as we are restricted to a path. This is the same with the wallabies and it makes it easy with young kids who are in a pram as they still get to see everything, thanks to no fences of course. Sometimes they’ll even come up to you, as happened to us when the kangaroos were extremely curious about our pram and as they closed in a little joey popped out of its pouch to see what all the commotion was about.
Secondary to the exhibits is the random wildlife living within the sanctuary in it’s amazingly curated gardens makes you feel like you are actually walking through the bush. It’s great to just walk around and soak up the gardens and bushland areas, with creeks running through them, where you might spot the odd fish or eel (as my keen eyed friend spotted on a recent visit). It is a brilliant display of native Australian plants and I have taken many ideas back home and implemented them into my own garden.
For Fletch, and now Immy who copies his every action, the next best thing to the snakes and reptiles is the main playground with the large sandpit. There have been times when we have visited with family or friends with their kids and we have spent half our visit at this playground. Thankfully the main café is located there along with the parents change rooms, so it makes for a good stopping point to let the kids burn off some energy and have our morning snack/lunch. Just beware of the Bin Chickens (Ibis) as they will steal your lunch if you’re not paying attention.
Dr. Immy and her Dr. friend in the Animal Hospital
The other key activity for the kids is the animal hospital area, where they can dress up and role play as vets and care for the injured animals (stuffed toys) that are in the hospital. This is another area we spend a lot of time, just letting the kids run off with their imaginations, whilst we get a chance to kick back and relax or dive into their world and role play as a nurse to their doctor. Fletch likes to take it seriously with bandaging the animals and checking their heartbeat with his stethoscope, whilst Immy will just cuddle them or run around with her goggles and waving her bandage everywhere.
There are many great experiences you can do at HS, such as the free shows that they put on everyday. We’ve recently started taking the kids to the bird show, where I love watching the birds of prey and the kids love the talking parrots. We also headed to the platypus talk in our last visit, which was really interesting. It’s tailored for the kids, but has a few take home lessons for parents as well with regards to recycling and littering. Not surprisingly the kids also picked up on this message, which hopefully they take into adult life and help make our area, if not the planet a better place.
Fletch feeding the kangaroos
Also there are experiences you can purchase as extra. Two of these we have done, one pre-kids and the other for Fletcher’s 2nd birthday. Amanda and I did the close up encounter with the Koalas, where you get to go into the enclosure and see them. Our koala was sound asleep, and you can’t hold the koalas, so it made for a slightly underwhelming experience. I think it was just the day we were there though as I have seen other encounters where the Koala is up and about, which would have made it more interesting. The other encounter was feeding the kangaroos, which Fletch did for his birthday. He surprised us by pushing through his shy/cautious persona to feed them himself, which he loved and continued tell us over and over about how their tongues and teeth felt on his little hands.
I just feel that we get so much more out of visiting HS compared with its two sister zoos, more so for the kids. Having the membership means we can use it as a meeting place with family or friends and their kids even if we only just see a couple of exhibits and mostly play in the playground or hospital. My advice is to get there as early as possible (I know obvious right) and bring a picnic as there are many tables and chairs around or shaded open grass areas. If you think you will visit at least three times to any or all the zoos then the membership pays for itself. Mostly I like it as it gives you peace of mind during the visit so you don’t feel you need to rush. If one exhibit is crazy busy, just leave it for another time.
Let’s be honest, we have some of the craziest and most incredible animals in the world and HS is home to them all. So get out and see Healesville Sanctuary and enjoy a piece of Australiana with or without the kids, either way it’ll make for a great adventure.
The best place to follow Josh’s adventures with his family is on his Instagram site @josh.duthie. You can see this post and more Adventures of Duth by clicking the link below.