By Cadence Bambenek | February 14, 2016
One night last fall, Nicole Cauffman and her 7-year-old daughter, Aubrey, fell asleep to the sound of “barking” bats after feeding an avocado to an aardvark and slathering an envelope with peanut butter for an orangutan to find in the morning.
Beginning in April, families with children over the age of 5 will again have the opportunity to roll out their sleeping bags and spend the night next to reptiles, amphibians and fish at the Vilas Zoo.
Zoo caretakers will open up the Discovery Center and Herpetarium for “Snooze at the Zoo” on designated Fridays to give zoo-goers a peek at animal nightlife. Attendees will have pizza and a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo before tucking in next to the cold-blooded animals of the Herpetarium.
The program, which costs $55 per person for zoo members and $65 per person for non-members, is available on six Fridays from April through October.
Cauffman, of Prairie du Sac, said that at the sleepover she and Aubrey attended, volunteers brought out an aardvark and allowed participants to feed it avocados out of their hands.
“It tickled my hands,” Aubrey said, giggling.
They then set out their sleeping bags in the Discovery Center near other mammals, restless in their adjacent exhibit, Cauffman said.
“It was really cool,” she said. “You could hear these bats, the sugar gliders, going around the room — and they barked like dogs. I didn’t know bats barked.”
Before bed, mother and daughter decorated envelopes and filled them with food — Aubrey chose peanut butter. In the morning, zookeepers hid the envelopes around the orangutan habitat and the visitors watched as the apes began their treasure hunt.
Erin Flynn, the zoo’s conservation education curator, said the zoo is always looking for new ways to engage visitors with animals, both those in captivity and in the wild.
Piloted last year, the sleepovers are geared primarily to families and groups.
“We’re great at offering a free zoo from 9:30 until 5 o’clock every day,” said Jeff Halter, deputy zoo director. “But this helps us to extend our hours and give our visitors a more personalized experience at the zoo.”
For more information, go to: www.vilaszoo.org/sleepovers.